Drug Makers Replace Reps With Digital Tools
By JEANNE WHALEN
Big pharmaceutical companies have found replacements for the army of sales representatives they've laid off in recent years: digital sales tools that seek to sell doctors on drugs without the intrusion of an office visit.
Tens of thousands of pharmaceutical sales reps have been eliminated in the U.S., creating a void that drug makers are now increasingly filling with websites, iPad apps and other digital tools to interact with doctors who prescribe their treatments.
Doctors can use the tools to ask questions about drugs, order free samples and find out which insurers cover certain treatments. Sometimes drug-company representatives will engage them in live chat, or phone them back if they have more questions.
The changes are designed to cut costs and to reach doctors in ways other than the traditional office visit, which many busy physicians say they find intrusive and annoying. In 2009, one of every five doctors in the U.S. was what the industry calls a "no see," meaning the doctor wouldn't meet with reps.
Just a year later, that jumped to one in four, according to Bruce Grant, senior vice president of Digitas, a digital marketing agency of Publicis Groupe SA that has created tools for companies including AstraZeneca PLC and Sanofi-Aventis SA. About three-quarters of industry visits to U.S. doctors' offices fail to result in a face-to-face meeting, he adds.
Most companies say they're using digital tools to supplement personal sales calls, but widespread layoffs in the sector suggest that technology is replacing, not just supplementing, human reps.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, drug companies spent lavishly to increase their U.S. sales forces, an escalation most companies came to regret as a burdensome arms race. Sales reps with company cars and trunks full of free samples became a ubiquitous, and expensive, industry symbol.
AstraZeneca set up a digital marketing group in 2009 and substantially ramped up its work last year, says John McCarthy, vice president of commercial strategy and operations in the U.S. The group, which is primarily focused on marketing to health-care providers as opposed to consumers, created "AZ Touchpoints," a website doctors can use to ask questions, order free samples and ask about insurance coverage. The site also contains brochures and other "educational materials" that doctors can print out.
Touchpoints gives doctors a number to call if they want to speak to an AstraZeneca rep, or they can request a callback. Many of these calls are handled by third-party contractors including TMS Health, a call-center provider. If those reps can't answer the doctor's questions, the call gets passed to an AstraZeneca staffer with more scientific training, Mr. McCarthy says.
AstraZeneca, which sells the heartburn treatment Nexium and the schizophrenia drug Seroquel, tracks what doctors view on the site and uses that information to tailor content to the doctor during subsequent interactions, Mr. McCarthy said.
Touchpoints has helped AstraZeneca cut its marketing costs and "redirect our sales force to new products that need more of a scientific discussion," he says. Last year, AstraZeneca said it planned to eliminate 10,400 jobs by 2014, including thousands of sales positions in Western markets. The company said the cuts, amounting to about 16% of its work force, would help it save $1.9 billion a year by 2014.
Many other drug giants are slashing their sales forces and experimenting with digital marketing. Sanofi-Aventis has www.ipractice.com
, which offers services and information similar to AstraZeneca's Touchpoints, and Merck & Co. has www.merckservices.com
Digital marketing isn't always as successful as the human variety. Mr. McCarthy says the websites aren't ultimately as "effective as having someone in the office."
When German drug maker Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH launched the cardiovascular drug Pradaxa in the U.S., it put together a digital-marketing package to target doctors, including organizing webcasts for leading physicians to speak to other physicians about the drug. But the company found that sales calls to doctors' offices were still the most powerful tool for driving new prescriptions, says Wa'el Hashad, vice president of cardiovascular and metabolic marketing. "No doubt digital marketing does have an impact...I don't believe, however, the shift happens overnight. I think it's a gradual shift," he says.
Christopher Luyken, a general practitioner near Cologne, Germany, says he exchanges views with other doctors online, but sees some of the industry's online marketing as "spam." He says he'd rather hear about new drugs from a sales rep he knows and trusts.
Danish drug maker Novo Nordisk AS says it hasn't cut its U.S. sales force over the past five years but is still adding digital marketing tools. Late last year the company 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 hemophelia.
Citing data from market-research firms, Eddie Williams, head of Novo Nordisk's biopharmaceutical business in the U.S., said 72% of U.S. doctors own a smartphone, and 95% of them use it to download medical applications. Novo Nordisk has several other applications available on iTunes, including one that helps doctors calculate blood-sugar levels. Novo Nordisk is a major seller of insulin and other diabetes treatments.
Other companies offering iPhone and iPad apps for doctors include Sanofi-Aventis, Merck, Pfizer Inc., GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Novartis AG.
Eli Lilly & Co. set up lillyconnect.com in 2002 as a new channel for marketing its drugs to doctors. But the company has since shut the site down, according to a Lilly spokesman, who says the site "outlived its goals." He says Lilly is now considering "newer on-demand portals" that will allow doctors to "access information instantly as they are treating patients."
Write to Jeanne Whalen at firstname.lastname@example.org