Pharma Marketer Strategies to Reach Doctors

Doctor and businessman talking in hospital
••• Jose Luis Pelaez/Blend Images/Getty Images

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.

The chart below shows a select list of big pharma companies and the amounts they spend on marketing versus research and development.

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 needs 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.