Would e-Marketing Replace Medical Representatives?

Many people within the pharmaceutical industry cannot simply visualize a drug marketing environment without Medical Representatives (MRs) detailing their products to doctors for ever increasing prescription support. This much traditional sales force, for face to face interaction and transaction with the customers, is considered virtually indispensable and has formed the backbone for organic growth of the global pharma industry since decades.

It has emerged this way because, pharmaceutical industry sells drugs predominantly through doctors’ prescriptions, where MRs play a pivotal role to influence them directly or indirectly in various ways.

Therefore, for greater success through effective increase in customer focus, as compared to competition, pharma companies are engaged in expanding the size of their respective field-forces on an ongoing basis, though in varying numbers. However, over a period of time, this process has become very expensive, costing on an average around 17 to 20 percent, if not more, of the total expenditure of a company.

As a result, many companies have now started experiencing that their business return on ever increasing number of MRs is not commensurate to investments made on them, mainly in terms of productivity growth per headcount.

This overall scenario has now prompted many pharma players, across the world, to take a hard look at the evolving drug marketing scenario and expeditiously address the consequent issues, as I shall deliberate in this article.

MRs historical role:

Most of the pharma players use their MRs to implement predominantly the following time-tested strategic game plans to generate more and more prescriptions for their respective brands:

  • Detailing product features and benefits
  • Distributing free samples and gifts
  • Developing Key Opinion Leaders (KOL) for identified products
  • Arranging product oriented seminars, conferences and Continuing Medical Education (CME) programs
  • Monitoring doctors prescriptions and incentivizing them in various company specific ways
  • Giving necessary feedbacks to their respective companies

Productive ‘doctor calls’ becoming increasingly difficult:

According to an article titled “Are Sales Reps Necessary?” published in ‘The Pharma Marketing News’, the following details, besides others, were captured in the United States:

  • MRs’ average only 2 quality details per day (quality details include discussion of features, benefits, and data).
  • Only 43 percent of MRs ever gets past the receptionist
  • Only 7 percent of pharma rep visits last more than 2 minutes
  • Only 6 percent of physicians think representatives are very fair balanced
  • The physician remembers only 8 percent of MR calls

Optimal MR productivity – the key issues:

The issue of desired MR productivity is thus becoming a cause of great concern globally for the pharma players. This is mainly because, while the number of patients is fast increasing, the doctors are trying to see all these patients within their limited available time. As a result, each patient is getting lesser doctors’ time, even though the doctors are trying to provide optimal patient care in each patient visit.

In tandem, other obligations of various kinds, personal or otherwise, also overcrowd physicians’ time. In a situation like this, increasing number of MRs, which has almost doubled in the past decade, is now fiercely competing with each other to get a share of lesser and lesser available time of the doctors. Added to this, inflow of new doctors not being in line with the increasing inflow of patients, is making the situation even worse.

According to another study of CMI Communication Media Research, about half of physicians restrict visits from MRs in one-way or another. It reported, about half of cancer specialists (oncologists) are now saying that they would interact only on new products with MRs, while 47 percent of them indicated email as a preference to MR calls.

Surveys found that the oncologists are the most restrictive specialists, with only 19 percent allowing MRs without restrictions. Moreover, 20 percent of them would not see MRs at all and another 40 percent either require prior appointments or limit visits to particular hours of the day/week.

Downsizing sales force with e-marketing:

A paper published in the WSJ titled,Drug Makers Replace Reps With Digital Tools” states that pharmaceutical companies in the United States are downsizing their sales force with increasing usage of iPad apps and other digital tools for interacting with doctors.

Such widespread layoffs do signal to many that digital tools and technology have started replacing the MRs, at least in the United States, may be in a limited way to begin with.

Building relationship:

However, other group of industry watchers believe that eliminating MRs from the pharma marketing process could lead to a serious set back in the doctor-pharma company face to face relationship that is very important for success While rebutting this point, the pro e-marketing proponents  raise a counter question: Does such relationship now exist with most MRs so far as the high value target doctors are concerned?

e-marketing gradually taking roots:

Many fascinating experiments with e-marketing have now started in several places of the world with considerable success, in tandem with germination of even bolder and brighter ideas in this area. However, the above report mentioned the following:

  • AstraZeneca tracks what doctors view on the website and uses that information to tailor marketing content for the doctor during subsequent interactions. The company had reportedly said in 2010, that it plans to eliminate 10,400 jobs by 2014, including thousands of sales positions in Western markets amounting to around 16 percent of its work force. This step was to help the company saving around US$1.9 billion a year by 2014.
  • When German drug maker Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH launched the cardiovascular drug Pradaxa in the US, it reportedly put together a digital-marketing package to target doctors, including organizing webcasts for leading physicians to speak to other physicians about the drug, with considerable success.
  • Novo Nordisk in 2010 launched a website and iPad/iPhone application called ‘Coags Uncomplicated’, which offers tools to help doctors diagnose bleeding disorders. The site and app include a plug for Novo Nordisk’s drug NovoSeven, which helps stop bleeding related to acquired hemophilia. It has several other applications available on iTunes, including one that helps doctors calculating blood-sugar levels.
  • Some other companies offering iPhone and iPad based apps for doctors include among others, Sanofi, Merck, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Eli Lilly.

Advantages of e-marketing:

As I had indicated earlier in my blog post, ‘e-marketing’ would help creating customized, more impressive, self-guided by doctors and more focused presentations with significant reduction in the detailing cost/ product with improved productivity.

Moreover, ‘e-marketing’ would:

  • Make expensive printed promotional aids redundant
  • Eliminate time required and cost involved to deliver such material
  • Have the flexibility of change at any time
  • Ordering of just required samples online would help eliminating wastage

Fast increasingly number of doctors using Internet enabled computers/tablets and smart phones for professional purposes, especially in the urban areas, would facilitate this process.


Keeping in mind this changing scenario, mindset and behavior of the doctors, as lesser and lesser time is available with the high value target customers for interaction with the MRs, the pharma players would require to take afresh a hard look at their own strategic marketing vision and principles to zero-in on the most effective mix. This approach, I reckon, is applicable more to the domestic players in India.

For high value target customers a combo-strategy would probably be more effective now. In this strategic game plan, MRs would continue to remain as the basic fabric of a drug marketing process, though in reduced numbers and augmented by increasing focus on new technologies/applications through iPad, smart phones, various Internet enabled tools, social networking sites and real time analytics. Formidable differential marketing thrust that would be created through skillful execution of this combo-strategy, is expected to be more effective in making both top and bottom line performance of a pharma player sustainably impressive to the stakeholders.

The name of the game is, therefore, impactfully delivering the core tangible and intangible product values to the doctors for desired outcome in their prescriptions decision making process, keeping in pace with the changing demand of time with a long-term ability to innovate.

That said, would e-marketing then replace MRs to a considerable extent in the years ahead?

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.