Grounded by the pandemic, pharma reps turn to digital tools to reach docs

Doctor on computer
Pharma sales reps are switching to digital tools to contact doctors during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Getty/Vladdeep)

Pharma sales reps spend their lives driving from one hospital or physician's office to another, shaking hands and doling out materials, but the novel coronavirus has changed all that.

As COVID-19 spreads worldwide, drugmakers are enacting stay-at-home policies, subbing digital sales tools and virtual meetings for face-to-face visits. It's accelerating a yearslong trend toward digital sales tools fueled by increasing restrictions at doctors' offices and hospitals. And, in the end, the pandemic may shift pharma sales to digital detailing permanently.

A FiercePharma survey found new sales rep realities at the following companies:

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Bayer field staffers—including sales, market access and medical teams—have all been asked to work from home until further notice, a spokesperson said.

As of Monday, all Pfizer customer-facing employees in the U.S. and Puerto Rico have switched to virtual customer tools to stay in contact with healthcare providers and others, a Pfizer spokeswoman said. The company will reassess the decision as the situation changes.

At GlaxoSmithKline, all employees in the U.S. “are working remotely if their duties allow. Our sales force is using technology to interact virtually with HCPs,” said a GSK spokesperson in an email. Like most other pharma companies, GSK plans to monitor its guidance and update accordingly.

Sanofi said it is encouraging all office-based employees to work from home, which include field reps “who are expected to leverage digital tools and platforms in lieu of face-to-face meetings to interact with customers,” a spokesperson said in an email.

A Merck spokesperson said, “As needed, in many markets we have paused in-person interactions with health care providers and our field-based employees are working from home, including the U.S.”

Novartis is asking all U.S. employees to work from home beginning Monday through at least April 3, with the caveat that “based on the nature of the work of some associates, it is not always feasible to work remotely—these associates will receive guidance specific to their role from their local leadership teams,” according to a spokesperson.

Bristol Myers Squibb said that through April 1, it is limiting customer-facing employees' interactions and "using remote technology to ensure continued support for healthcare professionals, patient care and access to our medicines," according to a statement from the company.

At Johnson & Johnson, while its facilities remain open, any office worker who can work from home has been asked to do so, a spokesperson said in an email. J&J will continuously reassess policies in accordance with health authority policies and in support of its employees, communities and customers, he said.

Global Blood Therapeutics has suspended its field team from all in-person interactions, including visits to physician offices, clinics and hospitals and all in-person meetings with payers. GBT said the suspension will be in place until April 7 when it will reevaluate.

And Biogen, the epicenter of Massachusetts' disease spread, has suspended all in-person customer engagements and all travel through the end of March in its response to COVID-19, a spokesperson said.

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