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. 72% of U.S. doctors own a smartphone, and 95% of them use it to download medical applications. Interactive multimedia for doctors may be the new "virtual rep."
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.
About three-quarters of industry visits to U.S. doctors' offices fail to result in a face-to-face meeting. 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.
AstraZeneca substantially ramped up its digital marketing group which is primarily focused on marketing to health-care providers as opposed to consumers. "AZ Touchpoints," Is a website doctors can use to ask questions, order free samples and ask about insurance coverage.
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 call-center providers. If those reps can't answer the doctor's questions, the call gets passed to an AstraZeneca staffer with more scientific training.
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. Boehringer Ingelheim 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. Danish drug maker Novo Nordisk 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.