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Pharma Reps are at Risk of Going Extinct: How Data Can Help

Andrea Sorkin

Director, Data Analytics Consulting
Blog
  • Life Sciences

Pharmaceutical representatives were once critical ambassadors for life sciences manufacturers. Reps went door to door with a bag of samples, free pens and a roster of educational material to convince physicians that their product was the best for appropriate patients. Unfortunately, the field of pharmaceutical sales has not evolved alongside the changes of the healthcare ecosystem. The kind of treatments that are brought to market today look nothing like the oral statins or antihyperglycemics of yesterday. Yet, the role of the rep has remained the same as it was 10 years ago. Simply augmenting the rep toolbox with video calls and social media accounts doesn’t come close to addressing the seismic shift we have seen in healthcare.

We need to change the role of the pharmaceutical rep now or this profession will soon be rendered obsolete, leaving the industry without anyone on the ground to pull through advances in research. To do so, we need to address two main challenges at the heart of this problem: loss of access and loss of relevancy. 

Challenge 1: Loss of Access

Some of the changes that we’re seeing in our healthcare ecosystem have made it impossible for reps to have the level of unfettered access they once had to physicians during regular office hours.

WHAT HAS CHANGED ? 

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR REPS?

To remain competitive in the market, healthcare systems have continued a trend of major consolidation. There were 294 merger and acquisition deals in Q4 2021 alone. The volume of M&A activity in 2021 increased by 16%, with the value of these deals rising by 44%. Additionally, we’ve seen an emergence of “payvider” healthcare systems that control formularies for all providers in their network. The number of healthcare providers that have created their own insurance plans has increased by about 10% every year since 2014.

There are fewer opportunities for reps to build relationships with individual prescribers, as providers are working within large organizations that do not allow reps on premises. Closed networks make their own formulary decisions, leaving little opportunity for reps to influence decision-makers. 

The Sunshine Act included in the Affordable Care Act of 2010 has increased public scrutiny of remuneration to providers in exchange for attendance at events or advisory services.

Providers are less willing to accept meals from the pharmaceutical industry, presenting a barrier to reps who previously discussed product updates over catered meals.

COVID-19 altered the way healthcare providers work. The rise in telehealth that began during the pandemic has continued to grow, meaning even doctors can work remotely.

Doors that were physically closed to pharmaceutical reps during the pandemic never fully reopened, as more providers are choosing to receive information digitally or through their own social networks.

Challenge 2: Loss of Relevancy

The kind of therapeutics that are released to market today present new challenges for patients and providers that reps are not adequately equipped to solve. The industry is making attempts to feed reps with recommended actions based on insights from HCP behavior collected through data and digital channels, but although the generation of Next Best Actions has increased by 45%, usage still hovers below 20%.

WHAT HAS CHANGED ?

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR REPS?

The industry is now focused on specialty biologics and personalized therapies that treat the most complex or rare diseases.

Pharmaceutical reps are expected to provide education about rare diseases and help their customers navigate the complex reimbursement landscape.

Specialty biologics are more difficult to manufacture, resulting in a higher market price that requires prior authorization approval. Studies show that 40% of prescriptions requiring prior authorizations are abandoned. The loss of revenue from abandoned prescriptions is exacerbated by economic instability that has resulted in some people losing access to insurance altogether. 

Reps seem out of touch when they show up to promote the benefits of drugs patients cannot afford or access.

Providers and patients have come to expect the same level of personalized consumerism they receive through all other commerce channels.

Reps are still measured on the basis of reach and frequency rather than on the quality of their interactions. These KPIs are counterproductive to investment in initiatives that are intended to deliver a personalized, omnichannel customer experience.

A New Commercial Model Driven by Data

To salvage the role of reps, the industry must invest in a new model that leverages data and virtual technologies to augment in-person visits. Virtual reps can manage day-to-day educational needs and sample fulfillment with an option for providers to submit a request for a rep visit either in-person or through virtual channels. There are multiple advantages to this approach:

  • The supply of reps will be right sized to be consistent with customer demand
  • The smaller salesforce size will lead to cost savings that can be reinvested to allow for a lower market price, leading to greater market access
  • Focused sales teams can be trained in a specialized area of medicine and taught to become advocates for access
  • A digitally enabled salesforce will be able to meet customers in their preferred channels with the information they need at the right time
  • Trust will be restored between the industry and stakeholders, reopening access channels

There are several data products that can be deployed in this hybrid model to effectively engage with customers and create a true omnichannel experience. It’s important to note that all of these require the implementation of a properly governed data foundation that is versatile enough to accommodate requirements of unique data products that are fit for purpose. These data products include:

  • Authenticated chatbots to submit medical inquiries, report adverse events, request samples or to ask for a rep visit
  • Integration between the chatbot and rep calendar to enable self-service access for scheduling
  • Complete customer profiles to derive a comprehensive and current customer journey
  • Triggered virtual engagements delivered in response to customer behaviors and expressed interests
  • Consent management to dictate which channels can be used to engage with customers
  • Applied natural language processing to enable real-time integration of customer sentiment from digital channels and social media
  • Integration of insights from claims and prescription data and predictive analytics to deliver appropriate service offerings (copay cards for commercial patients, patient assistance applications, webinar invitations, etc.)
  • Measurement that reflects customer engagement, preferences and attribution rather than quantity of engagements
  • Machine learning capabilities to continuously improve Next Best Actions, including channel selection, content and cadence
Bridging the Divide Between Pharma & Healthcare Stakeholders

As the pharmaceutical industry continues to invest in novel therapeutics, there’s a real opportunity to partner with healthcare providers to offer patients relief from their symptoms. Pharma companies can’t do this if they create disjointed experiences and messaging, which is what tends to happen when sales reps show up to provider offices unannounced and unaware. Reps must be positioned as one channel among many, giving customers an option to choose when they want to be contacted, how and why. Additionally, proper data exchange across all channels is required to create a continuous journey rather than one that feels fragmented and disruptive. To create a fully enabled digital commercial organization, the pharmaceutical industry needs to take the time to invest in building a proper data foundation. Once that is in place, providers can choose their own path and industry representatives will be positioned to act as their guides.

About the Author

Andrea Sorkin started her career in Life Sciences 20 years ago as a pharmaceutical rep in New York City. Ms. Sorkin was a rep for 10 years before transitioning to commercial analytics and ultimately, to data strategy consulting. Ms. Sorkin partners with clients to identify ways to use data technologies to improve the patient experience and create access to novel therapeutics.

Ms. Sorkin completed a documentary many years ago to raise awareness of autoimmune and related disorders in the female community. As an EPAM consultant, she applies her data storytelling skills to continue her mission of advocating for patients.  

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