All hail drug reps: Most cancer docs rely on pharma salespeople for info, survey finds

Doctor and patient talking and discussing health treatment while sitting at the desk. Physician pointing into tablet pc.
Oncologists rely on sales reps for new drug info in cancer market but also turn to digital sources, a survey found. (andrei_r/GettyImages)

Here's a stat drugmakers would love to tout: With the cancer drug market exploding, oncologists rely on pharma's own sales reps for information about the latest drugs and study data—and, crucially, assistance in helping their patients afford their meds.

By a wide margin, in fact. Seventy-one percent of U.S. oncologists surveyed by Cardinal Health Specialty Solutions agreed sales reps play an important role in their new-product education.

While turning to the makers of the drugs for information makes logical sense, it's still good news for drugmakers in general and pharma reps in particular. The sales rep role has been eroding as pharma companies turn to technology for doctor communications, for one thing, but more importantly, marketing scandals have tightened up rep access to many doctors.

Oncologists are more welcoming. Among the cancer doctors surveyed, 48% allow full access to sales reps, while 45% allow access with limits.

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“Oncologists appreciate the pharmaceutical companies and they rely on them, particularly when it addresses a high unmet medical need,” said Joe DePinto, president of Cardinal Health Specialty Solutions, which conducts the oncology survey, now in its sixth year, in advance of Cardinal’s oncology summits.

The key value-adds ascribed to sales reps? Patient access and assistance programs (64%), followed by providing staff education (42%) and providing patient education materials (24%), were the key benefits listed by the 170 community and hospital cancer doctors surveyed over three months this fall.

However, sales reps are still just one of many resources oncologists use for information—key opinion leaders and online clinical support platforms ranked ahead of sales reps as more often-used channels. Overall, use of digital information and education continues to grow, DePinto said, with 73% agreeing that websites, internet and e-newsletters play an important role in finding new products.

“Pharmaceutical companies are a go-to, but physicians have access to more and more information, just like consumers, and there are multiple vehicles and they are clearly using all of them,” DePinto said.

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Pharma companies should note areas of opportunity such as what oncologists name as the value they get and want from pharma. Their answers focus on what patients need to access specialty products and what physicians’ staff members need to navigate treatment approaches.

The survey also asked about the kind of content oncologists want from pharma companies, beyond clinical and safety trial data. The top answer named by 24% was patient outcome studies based on real-world evidence, followed by comparative effectiveness studies (20%).

“There continues to be growing interest in real world evidence,” DePinto said, “Two-thirds of the respondents said real world evidence is necessary to inform treatment decisions—that’s substantial.”