With Evolv­ing Laws, Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Com­pa­nies are Using New Mar­ket­ing Tech­niques.

As the ones who write the scripts, physi­cians are the most impor­tant audi­ence in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sales. Gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions that place a heavy empha­sis on dis­clo­sure and indus­try self-polic­ing efforts, such as the PhRMA Code on Inter­ac­tions with Health­care Pro­fes­sion­als, have required changes in how phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies mar­ket prod­ucts to physi­cians. But those are not the only fac­tors. Physi­cian reliance on Inter­net tech­nol­o­gy for infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­cat­ing is also forc­ing phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies to re-tool their mar­ket­ing strate­gies.

Traditional Marketing

Physi­cians val­ue free drug sam­ples and are will­ing to meet with sales rep­re­sen­ta­tives to get them unless their med­ical net­work bans free sam­ples. The indus­try finds sam­ples the most effec­tive mar­ket­ing tool and spends bil­lions annu­al­ly dis­trib­ut­ing free drug sam­ples.

Crit­ics of the prac­tice say drug sam­ples steer physi­cians to pre­scribe new, high­er cost med­ica­tions when gener­ics or low­er priced brand drugs are avail­able. “Once ther­a­py has been ini­ti­at­ed, patients and their insur­ers are like­ly to con­tin­ue to pay for the new, cost­ly drugs,” accord­ing to research by the ​Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trust Pre­scrip­tion Project.

Gift­ing of things such as meals, trav­el expens­es, books, and speak­ing fees is a tra­di­tion­al mar­ket­ing tool under heavy fire. Some state gov­ern­ments have banned all gifts to physi­cians, which can be con­fus­ing to mar­keters want­i­ng to pro­vide some­thing as basic as an ice cream cone at a nation­al med­ical con­ven­tion.

That image cer­tain­ly illus­trates how com­pli­cat­ed it has become, and sales rep­re­sen­ta­tives need to be famil­iar with the laws and reg­u­la­tions in each state.

Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny rep­re­sen­ta­tive often devel­ops work­ing rela­tion­ships with key opin­ion lead­ers or “thought lead­ers” who influ­ence oth­er physi­cians through their pro­fes­sion­al sta­tus.

Emerging Tactics

Physi­cians have been among the ear­li­est of the ear­ly adopters of mobile tech­nol­o­gy, begin­ning with beep­ers and pagers, and then PDAs, smart­phones, tablet PCs and oth­er hand­helds that make patient records and ref­er­ence mate­ri­als portable.

With so many physi­cians already mar­ried to their elec­tron­ic devices, apps for the iPad and Smart­phone seem a ripe niche for phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies. “Health­care is a mobile pro­fes­sion and lends itself to these devices,” stat­ed Bruce Carl­son, pub­lish­er of Kalo­rama Infor­ma­tion, a mar­ket research com­pa­ny. The glob­al health­care sec­tor invest­ed $8.2 bil­lion in hand­held devices and relat­ed appli­ca­tions in 2009, accord­ing to Kalo­rama.​

Social net­works like Face­book, LinkedIn and Twit­ter, and hun­dreds of small­er niche sites allow physi­cians to orga­nize pro­fes­sion­al online com­mu­ni­ties for col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Physi­cians Inter­ac­tive (PI), based in Marl­bor­ough, Mass., claims to have devel­oped “the largest net­work of online and mobile health­care pro­fes­sion­al rela­tion­ships in the Unit­ed States, reach­ing more than 875,000 physi­cians, nurs­es, and allied health pro­fes­sion­als in all major spe­cial­ties.” PI serves its phar­ma clients through the devel­op­ment of mobile and online clin­i­cal resources for health­care pro­fes­sion­als.

Ser­mo, a free online MD-only com­mu­ni­ty, claims 115,000 mem­bers, or 20 per­cent of all U.S. physi­cians. Daniel Palestrant, MD, the site’s founder and CEO, says 10 of the top 12 phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies are Ser­mo clients who “are engag­ing physi­cians through our social media offer­ings built specif­i­cal­ly to increase brand aware­ness.” Spon­sor­ing com­pa­nies can fol­low physi­cian dis­cus­sions such as their reac­tions to dif­fer­ent com­po­nents of the health reform law, pro­mote their brand and engage with physi­cian mem­bers, accord­ing to Ser­mo.

Mar­ket­ing con­sul­tant Richard Mey­er observes that the role of the tra­di­tion­al sales rep who con­stant­ly seeks face time with doc­tors is “fad­ing.” Mey­er and oth­er indus­try watch­ers say phar­ma need to re-tool their mar­ket­ing efforts and bring more “med­ical com­mu­ni­ca­tion spe­cial­ists” on staff to engage with physi­cians online.

These med­ical com­mu­ni­ca­tors could pro­vide val­ue-added ser­vices that help physi­cians sort through infor­ma­tion clut­ter while facil­i­tat­ing links with clin­i­cal tri­als, jour­nals, and knowl­edge opin­ion lead­ers.