Ringside View Of A Key Pharma Job Missing ‘The X Factor’

Just the other day, a well known doctor and a long-time friend of mine invited me for a friendly chat over lunch, after a long while. I had no option really but to accept the invite, as the warmth of his voice was overflowing.

Though the eatery, based on the ambiance and the quality of food we like, was mutually decided in his previous call, I called him again to ask whether on the pre-fixed date, about an hour earlier to the scheduled time, I can meet him first in his clinic and from there we can go together for lunch.

With a slight pause, he said, ‘No problem…but I won’t be able to talk to you there much, as I need to see all those patients with pre-scheduled appointments.”

“That’s no issue. We’ll have enough time to chat while eating. But, would you see any Medical Representatives (MRs) during that time?” I asked.

“Though my hectic schedule and other commitments don’t allow me to meet with them as much as I used to earlier…  yes, still I do meet with a few of them only two days in a week,” he took a pause, possibly to refer to his calendar and said, “Tomorrow being one those day…yes… I will… but why are you asking that?”

“I would like to just observe the MRs, while they discuss their products with you”, I literally warmed up while replying to him

“But Tapan, I don’t talk much in these meetings”, he replied somewhat apprehensively.

“Don’t worry, I shall just sit there, incognito, taking a mental note of what’s happening around, nothing more, nothing less,” I closed the call, as he did not ask any further question.

The ‘D-Day’:

On the ‘D-Day’, I entered for the first time into his well equipped and squeaky-clean clinic and saw his secretary sitting outside his office. She buzzed him immediately, as I introduced myself to her. To my utter surprise, my doctor friend came out promptly, despite his jam-packed schedule. Greeting me with his both hands and usual warmth and laughter, he took me inside, as the waiting patients were probably wondering, who is this gate-crasher? Offering a chair to me, the doctor friend smiled and said, “I couldn’t make time to meet any MR today since morning, though have kept a couple of them waiting for you to arrive, as you had desired.”

“That was not really necessary,” I quipped, “but thanks so much, nonetheless.”

The ringside view:

In a little over an hour’s time, I observed with great interest four MRs interacting with their, quite expectedly, one of the very potential customers.

Three of them were about thirtyish or below and one middle aged gentleman. Two of them came with their respective superiors. Three were quite traditional in approach. One was armed with an iPad.

I got an overall impression that the MRs were more in a hurry to conclude the call as compared to my doctor friend. Most of the interactions were more of reminder types than full detailing of any product, though all four of them had some very specialized products. I was under the impression that, at least, in presence of the supervisors, in-clinic proceedings take place with far more detail.

My doctor friend seem to be rather impatient and not quite enthused with the ongoing proceedings, but I was curious, very curious, especially when the young MR took out his iPad. I expected to see something novel on the innovative application of technology in medical communication. Probably for that reason, I was disappointed, when the young man handled the gizmo rather clumsily and used it merely to highlight some recent references on his specialized product stored in the archive.

Young looking accompanying managers of the two MRs did not appear to be live-wires, either. The participation of one of them was restricted to just handing over some medicine samples to the doctor, which the MR was passing on to him from his bag and the other just requested for prescription support for a product, as he was getting up from his chair.

While I was engrossed in the ringside view and my related thoughts, my doctor friend seemingly woke up wearing a smile, as a middle-aged confidant looking MR entered into the room. That gentleman came alone. He started his interaction recalling some events related to a trip abroad, which his boss had briefed him and conveyed to my friend how positive was the audience feedback after his speech. Informing that after the event his company has analyzed the key questions raised on the concerned product, he sought permission of the doctor to discuss top three of those questions very briefly, and he did. The doctor shifted his position in the chair several times rather awkwardly; probably because he was being so frequently referred to by the MR with lavish eulogy and that too in my presence. Though the content of the MR’s talk was not anything earthshaking, the environment that he created putting my friend on the pedestal, albeit with plain flattery, appeared to be working. He used no detailing aids, neither did he give any gift, but applied just impromptu traditional salesmanship.

This was the last MR call for us. My friend looked at me and asked, “Liked?” looking at each other both of us laughed loudly. I then stopped to ask him, “Do you prescribe the products they thanked you for prescribing?”

I am not very sure about others, but the gentleman who came last? … Yes, I do prescribe at least two of his products,” my friend replied with a disarming smile as he was standing up, looking at his watch.

He then put his hand on my shoulder and with a mild squeeze said, “Let’s step out now, rest we shall catch up on the run.”

A quick analysis:

According to my assessment, barring the last MR, none of the other three calls appeared to have interested my friend in any way, as he kept referring to his calendar, diary and other things very often, while those MRs were talking.

No wonder, my friend could not even remember prescribing any of their products. This probably means, at least three out of the four calls, made by MRs of very well reputed companies, did not leave much impact, if at all. Interestingly, two out of the four calls were from the MNCs.

Is the professional standard of MRs declining in India?

As we know, pharma industry in India is highly fragmented, with over 10,000 companies in the organized sectors and around 60,000 brands. In an environment of cutthroat competition like this, pharma players are exploring all possible means to carve out for themselves a decent share of the respective product categories, incurring average sales and marketing expenditure of around 20 to 22 percent of the total sales.

Like many other countries of the world, in India too, MRs are the most important link between the medical profession and the pharma companies. Thus, the cost of MRs takes quite a significant chunk of total sales and marketing budget of the pharma companies. There remains a huge scope for improvement though, in the realm of per MR productivity, which varies widely between the companies. For example, according to a recent report, a Sun Pharma MR on an average generated around Rs 90 lakh of business in the full year ended on March 31 2014, as compared to Rs 55 lakh of Ranbaxy, during the same period.

According to a survey conducted among both specialists and General Practitioners (GP), published in Express Pharma some years ago, out of total 30 doctors interviewed, 23 reported that quality of medical representatives visiting them has deteriorated. Only three doctors reported that the quality has not really changed, while four reported quality has improved. It was claimed by the authors that this survey result is statistically significant both on ‘t test and z test’.

The study concluded that pharma companies are responsible for this decline, as majority of them are focusing just on the end results without bothering much about the means to the end. This indicates, disproportionately more weightage is being given on the total quantum of sales rather than its quality, during performance measurement.

My above personal experience on the subject, though very short, is not much different from the above survey results, either.

The tradition continues over decades:

It appeared to me, besides new application of state-of-art technology to modernize the communication process, to ensure rapid access to all related information and to improve efficiency of tech based command and control sales & marketing management systems; basically nothing noteworthy has changed, just yet.

Interestingly, many readily available third party training programs for the MRs in the peripheral areas are springing up in large numbers with fancy claims, leaving one of the most critical issues virtually unaddressed.

I shall try to deliberate on that area now, as I see it.

‘The X Factor’:

In my view, just as the doctors are well recognized professional experts in medical care for treating patients based on evidence based science, MRs are also, supposedly, experts and a valuable source of knowledge for the medicines that their respective companies deal with, but unfortunately not regarded that way in India, generally. This is predominantly because, the doctors have accreditation for their profession that is absolutely a pre-requisite for their medical care business. Whereas, MRs do not have any such accreditation, which could formally recognize them as professionals in the knowledge-based drug/medicine business and related areas. Thus, there is somewhere a basic disconnect between the professions of the doctors and the MRs.

‘The X Factor’, in my view, is the process that facilitates requisite professional connects between the doctors and MRs, cemented by mutual professional respect, sans any kind of vested interests or needs of allurements, generally speaking.

Only with ‘The X Factor’ induced professional connects, I reckon, MRs could establish themselves as high quality source of knowledge for the drugs and disease areas that they deal with, of course, backed by regular training to hone their knowledge and skills.

This ‘X Factor’ could well be embedded into the organizational sales/marketing systems by putting in place a formal process to recognize medical representation as a respected profession.

The process of accreditation:

A structured process for Accreditation of MRs, most desirably, by involving the Government, can help achieving this goal sooner. If the Government participation is not possible for various reasons, the accreditation to MRs should come from some highly credible source, as would be accepted by the medical profession.

The process of Accreditation of MRs involves, in brief, documentation of the candidate’s basic pharma related knowledge, comprehension ability and domain specific skill sets, together with the ability of successful application of all those, while interacting with the medical profession to achieve the business goals.

The key task in the process of Accreditation is to develop modern technology based self-learning programs for the MRs that would provide basic knowledge of anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology and pharmacology together with a range of common treatments. Overall knowledge of communication and selling skills would also form an integral part of this process.

The Accreditation would ensure that the MR aspirants attain reasonable high standards for the profession that they are aspiring for. Later on, the pharmaceutical companies, who would hire them, could mold and sharpen their knowledge and skills according to company specific requirements.

Accreditation of MRs would, therefore, be a formal way to ensure that requisite high standards of the MR profession are met. Consequently, while meeting accredited MRs, the doctors would also know that they are meeting well trained and groomed, competent and credible disease area specific drug consultants. This, in turn, would help establishing requisite professional connects between the two professions based on a bond of mutual trust and respect, resulting in a win-win outcome for both.

How would the doctors recognize accredited MRs?

On successful completion of the examination for Accreditation, the individual would earn the privilege of being called an ‘Accredited Medical Representative (AMR)’, and acquire the right to put ‘AMR’ symbol next to his or her name in the business card and to wear a nice looking ‘AMR Pin’, while meeting the doctors.

Nothing much visible in this direction:

That said, not much has been effectively done, as yet, either to arrest the declining image of the MRs in the eyes of the medical profession or to make the MR profession a respectable one, except giving some extrinsic fancy job titles to them, devoid of any intrinsic value.

I am aware of some highly credible organizations, which are capable enough to give a formal shape to ‘MR Accreditation Program’ in India.

Thus the following key question arises in search of ‘The X-Factor’:

Should MRs need to have Accreditation from a credible and recognized authority in India, formally recognizing them as ‘Drugs/Medicine professionals’ and adding significant value and greater respect to the profession that they belong to?

In an earlier blog post titled “A National Regulatory Standard is necessary for MRs of the Indian Pharmaceutical Industry”, I had flagged this issue, though on a different perspective

Epilogue:

Now I get back to where I started from, in this article:

In about an hour, we were done with the lunch. However, while my doctor friend and I were eating, in track two of my brain, all those that I mentioned above were flashing by, though not in an orderly manner.

While we were in the portico of the hotel requesting the doorman to page our drivers, I thanked my doctor friend for buying me a sumptuous lunch and casually commented, “You remember the last MR?… He seems to have been really flabbergasted by your awesome speech in their conference abroad. My compliments! You have always been an excellent speaker!”

“Well…”, he quipped somewhat embarrassingly.

“Why have you reduced the frequency of meeting with the MRs?” I was curious, as those calls were a great learning experience for me, after a long while.

“Time…that’s a great constraint for me. Moreover, these meetings are like going through just motions”, he replied, while looking for his car.

Our cars arrived.

Before, I got into my car, I turned back to ask again, “Did you enjoy your foreign sojourn as a speaker for that pharma company?”

By that time the doctor friend was already in his car. Before closing the door, he looked at me again, widely smiled…somewhat naughtily, lunged forward, lowered his voice and haltingly replied, “Well…You know that…Bye for now.”

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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