More do-it-yourself docs are finding pharma answers on their own as sales rep contact declines

Physician-pharma rep engagement declined significantly over the past year, with fewer in-person meetings responsible for the bulk of the drop. (DRG)

Physicians are seeing fewer pharma sales reps than ever, which likely isn’t a surprise. But what might raise some eyebrows is the fact that digital contact by reps isn’t taking up the slack.

Instead, doctors are searching for drug and treatment information online and on their own. Close to half (49%) of doctors say they never have a question for a rep that they can’t find the answer to online, according to DRG’s 2019 annual ePharma Physician Report.

In the 2019 survey, only 54% of physicians say they see pharma reps in person, down from 67% in 2018. That’s the lowest contact rate the ePharma survey has recorded since it started asking similar questions in 2014. (The DRG physician report overall dates back to 2003.) Meanwhile, the percentage of doctors who had no interactions with pharma reps at all jumped from 24% last year to 39% this year.

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“We would have expected that physicians would become more digitally interactive with reps, but in this case, it’s actually more that they’re not interacting at all,” DRG senior analyst Dale Kappus said.

That’s driven in part by specific restrictions—physicians in hospitals, for instance, are less likely to spend any time with sales reps—but a much bigger reason is a lack of time. Doctors said they are just too time-crunched for any sales rep interactions, she said.

There was some good news for pharma in the study. The emerging self-service model found the credibility of pharma websites on the rise. Physicians say pharma companies are doing a better job of providing non-promotional educational material online—36% say they notice more value and more often non-promotional material on pharma websites compared with five years ago.

DRG’s advice to apply its learnings comes in three levels of difficulty. The easiest thing for pharma to do, Kappus said, is simply increasing outreach by email; of all emails from pharma, the personal emails from reps have the highest likelihood of being opened.

RELATED: Pharma rep visits? They're redundant, doctors say in new survey

A second, but a bit more challenging and costly, action pharma companies can take is to set up remote or self-detailing programs for doctors. And finally, the most difficult option for pharma is to create chatbots. Doctors especially are interested in medical science liaison chatbots to get answers to clinical questions.

“Physicians are saying don’t sell to me, don’t sell me a product. Be a partner in care and help me care for my patients," Matthew Arnold, principal analyst at DRG, said. "As long as pharma does more of that and less ‘buy my product,’ their estimation should continue to increase in the eyes of doctors.”

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