Is the role of the medical rep doomed?

Peter West

Wyeth Europa

One could be forgiven for thinking that the medical rep is about to be added to the World Wildlife Fund’s list of endangered species.

The pharma industry is awash with talk about the inevitable doom facing the medical rep. They speak of the medical rep as some outdated, outmoded, non-thinking, inflexible, creature. A modern-day Dodo that cannot adjust to the changing environment around it.

I wonder whether this is really true?

The pharma business environment, like any other business environment, has evolved over recent years. Most pharma companies had not fully anticipated the scale of this evolution and have found themselves reacting to change rather than leading it.

Faced with reduced access to their prescriber customers the pharma industry’s reaction was not to try and understand why access was falling and address the root cause, but rather, to create additional trading faces to give them more opportunities for access.

In the UK, the blame was laid at the door of change in the political environment:

‘GPs were now too busy with GP fundholding – their administrative load had increased – and therefore they had less time to see reps. They were forced to have a minimum number of patients on their list so they had to amalgamate into group practices – spec calls had declined and long-term appointment systems were making access more difficult’.

“The pharma industry is awash with talk about the inevitable doom facing the medical rep.”

Notwithstanding these factors had a bearing on accessibility, the real issue was that GPs were getting less and less value from their interactions with medical reps and other sources of product information, like the internet, were beginning to fill the gap.

Even now, we have not addressed the issue of providing value to our customers – and the possibilities of internet marketing are still in their infancy. At least, perhaps, we are starting to focus on these two critical areas, but we have a long way to go.

When we speak of “value” we need to understand what that actually means to our customers. And even before that, we need to understand who our customers actually are.

Has there been any objective study of what constitutes “value” to our complex range of customers? What is “value” to a payer, compared say, to “value” to a prescriber? Are there some areas in common that we can explore? And what about the areas of difference? Are we tailoring our approach from one customer group to another? Or are we trying to provide a “one-size fits all” solution? Do we know what we already have that would be valued by our customers?

The facts are that the complexity of our customer base has increased significantly. No longer are we dealing mainly with prescribers, but also with policy makers, payers and patient-groups as well. This calls for a radically different approach.

In recent years many of our medical reps have evolved into Health Care Development roles. Apparently they focus on the payers and policy makers to create a more favourable environment in which to market our products. What is their offering – pharmacoeconomic data about their company’s drugs? Is that what these customers want?

“In any kind of relationship – business or social – trust is paramount.”

How many of these people have any first-hand knowledge of working in a payor or policy-maker capacity? Do they understand the objectives, needs and concerns from their customers point of view?

In any kind of relationship – business or social – trust is paramount. I suggest we would have a better chance of building this trust if the people we sent to see payors or policy-makers came from a similar background and were able to empathise with their situation to find common solutions.

We are, after all, not merely providers of medicines – but providers of healthcare solutions. We would do well to focus on this.

So where does all this leave our poor, beleaguered medical rep?

I believe the medical rep still has a critical role to play. Even in this world of communication explosion the value of face to face, human to human, communication is important.

But our medical reps must be able to provide knowledge and information that isn’t readily available from elsewhere. They must facilitate dialogue, not monologue. And they need to be properly equipped to do their job.

For this to happen the pharmaceutical industry needs to focus on a customer-centric strategy, in which medical reps play a key role and are fully supported by their companies to do so.

About the author:

Peter West is Senior Marketing Director, Infectious Diseases at Wyeth Europa, based in the UK.

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