Mined doctor-patient data gives drugmakers insight for targeted marketing

The recent layoffs of hundreds of drug sales reps mean there are fewer people in the field calling on doctors to see what they are prescribing. But they don't have to--drugmakers have found new tools that actually can tell them more about doctors' prescribing patterns than the physicians even know themselves.

Companies like IMS Health and ZS Associates are providing drugmakers with detailed information concerning which doctors are prescribing what, and when and how often patients refill prescriptions, among other details, according to The New York Times. Drugmakers can analyze the patterns to decide where they might be able to intervene in order to make room for their products in the doctor-patient relationship.

Drugmakers say utilizing that information can help by improving the chances that a doctor's patients take their medications as they should, or making sure doctors are prescribing the right drug to the right patients. But the practice is making some doctors uncomfortable. "Almost by definition, a lot of this stuff happens under the radar--there may be a sales pitch, but the doctor may not know that sales pitch is being informed by their own prescribing patterns," said Dr. Jerry Avom, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, to The New York Times.

This kind of data analysis also helps "sales guys be much more efficient," Chris Wright, managing director of ZS Associates, which conducts such analyses, told the NYT. Efficiency is key at a time when drugmakers have been shedding hundreds of sales reps in the face of patent losses and slowing revenues. Last year Pfizer ($PFE) shed hundreds of reps after Lipitor generics came onto the scene, and AbbVie ($ABBV) intends to fire hundreds of cardio drug salespeople in advance of Tricor's November patent expiration. Eli Lilly ($LLY), which last year saw an expired patent on antipsychotic Zyprexa, recently said it would cut nearly 40% of its U.S. sales force, and it is looking for better, more cost-efficient ways to sell drugs. The company wants to keep certain sales teams "smaller and more aligned with both business realities and the way customers want to interact with the company," Lilly spokesman Scott MacGregor told the AP last month.

The tools also are useful at a time when many doctors are less willing to talk with drug reps amid so much concern that doctors too often are unduly influenced by a relationship with their reps. "At the end of the day, calling on doctors in terms of a personal selling model is a lot less important to selling your drug," Andrew Kress of  IMS told the Times. "You can read a dark side to any of this, but the reality is that most manufacturers that IMS does research for are really trying to engage in a much more productive dialogue with the health care providers."

- read the New York Times piece 
- get more from the AP

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