Changing Communication Methods in Pharma

Ariel Katz
Feb 9, 2021

The Magic is in the Mix

The best way for pharmaceutical companies to reach physicians and provide them with information is rapidly changing as digital media are more widely adopted, even by older physicians, and the demands on physicians’ time increase, leaving less time for meetings with sales reps.

A lot has been written about the demise of the pharma sales rep. However, the numbers show more of a picture of consolidation, not of demise. According to ZS Associates, who have been tracking the number of pharma sales reps for over a decade, the pharma rep count peaked in 2005 with over 100,000, then bottomed out in 2013 with just short of 62,000. A bit of an increase has been relatively stable over the last few years with about 70,000 pharmaceutical sales reps calling on doctors. During the same time the number of physicians that are accessible to sales reps has also declined: in 2017, only 48% of physicians were accessible to 70% or more of the sales reps that contacted them, versus around 80% of physicians as of about a decade ago.

Factors Driving the Trend Away from Sales Reps

The trend of moving away from the traditional sales-rep-visit business model is driven by a number of factors. Physicians are strapped for time and meetings with sales reps are taking up time that they could spend seeing patients or dealing with an increasing amount of paperwork. Despite the decrease in the number of sales reps, the average physician still gets approximately 2,800 contacts from sales reps per year or roughly one contact per hour spent working.

In addition, digital communication is taking over healthcare like it has many other professions. For one, digital channels are preferred by many healthcare providers (HCPs) over in-person communications. Secondly, digital communication is cheaper and easier to scale for pharma companies. Once set up, pushing out content via email, webinars, HCP portals or social media is a fast and cost-efficient way to reach healthcare providers and affords them the opportunity to engage with the content on their schedule. Modern marketing automation systems also allow for customization of the content that is delivered to each physician based on their interests. Analysis tools are used to establish what topics interest a physician by looking at which emails a specific provider opened, which links they clicked, how they navigated through a webpage, and what content they spent time reviewing. That information can then trigger follow-up communication with similar content.

Another driver is the healthcare providers’ need for relevant and timely content - “news you can use” as it is referred to. This is information that is directly applicable and useful to the physician’s daily practice, e.g. direct patient education materials or product alerts. Peer/KOL insights rank very high on the list of such desired content and – when sent in the form of emails - enjoy much higher opening rates than most other information, incl. staff resources and even information about newly approved drugs or clinical trials.

Relevant Content is King, Delivery Matters

High value content can be delivered in person, e.g. during meetings or conferences and increasingly reaches the recipients via digital channels, e.g. webcasts, recorded webinars or emails. A good mix of channels is important: a constant barrage of emails is likely counter-productive, as are too many calls or a flood of printed materials. The key question for pharmaceutical companies is how any message can be made to stand out from the noise. A mixture of channels and good timing are once again crucial. For example, a talk at a major conference or a webinar delivered by a key opinion leader that is followed up with an email campaign providing additional valuable information will garner more attention than a promotional email. The combination of personal interaction, e.g. by a sales rep, followed up by targeted and personalized digital communication, tends to work well in the pharma industry, just like it does everywhere else.

The commitment and investment pharma companies make in their KOLs can be utilized in many ways. Leveraging good, objective content of the “news you can use” type provided by KOLs via digital channels is one of the ways pharma companies can educate healthcare providers about the science behind their drugs and can help them stand out from the background noise of too many promotional emails and a never-ending stream of sales reps calling for an appointment.