With digital contact now equal to or surpassing sales rep visits to doctors, it’s no surprise there is intense interest from industry in how to expand and further exploit those interactions. Most pharma sales forces have already made the dive deep into digital.
Now, more attention is directed at using the data gleaned from such tools to help providers better meet their own goals, whether it is reducing readmissions, improving patient treatment or gathering data to help reach value-based purchasing benchmarks.
"The sky is the limit in terms of what is possible now," said Ken Williams, a vice president in strategic communications at healthcare consulting firm Avalere Health. "The data sets are growing in size and they cover patients, facilities, prescribing patterns, diagnostics, lab results and more."
Knocking on digital doors
Digital sales channels provide a powerful avenue of approach for pharmaceutical sales reps trying to convince doctors of the value of their products.
Digital tools can be relatively prosaic, such as the iPad, which is now commonly used in sales. But even more potent for pharma companies is customer relations management (CRM) software that enables more comprehensive oversight of sales channels. Veeva Systems, for example, sells tools to the life sciences industry designed to help companies coordinate both digital and in-person sales, while collecting valuable data through the same platform.
But the real fruits of digital selling come when you have "closed loop marketing," said Paul Shawah, head of commercial cloud strategy at Veeva. That’s when sales staff are not only using digital tools to deliver a message faster and in a more customized fashion, but they are also able to capture feedback about which content is resonating with customers. This gives companies better visibility on the impact their efforts have on sales.
These new techniques are fueling a surge in digital contact between pharma companies and providers. A 2016 survey by sales and marketing consultancy ZS Associates Inc. found more than 50% of marketing outreach to doctors now occurs mostly through digital communications.
Declining access forces pharmas to adapt
"Over the past five years we’ve seen a steady decline in sales rep access to physicians," said Malcolm Sturgis, a principal at ZS Associates who led the study, in a statement. But "blindly inundating providers with digital communications isn’t the best solution," he said, because doctors already feel they are spending lots of time communicating with pharmaceutical sales reps.
That has forced pharma companies to make better use of the data they are gathering to customize and adapt messaging to suit the needs of specific customers.
"Now we can pull in data dynamically and tailor the conversation to that particular customer," said Caroline Pearson, a senior vice president at Avalere. With data comprising approximately 30 billion clinical events based on 230 million patients, Avalere has plenty to pull from.
"Data is becoming a bigger part of the sales conversation," Pearson added, "We used to be able to talk about a problem, such as readmissions, from one provider’s perspective, but now we also have data from all 50 states."
Some sales teams, said Williams, may look very much like they did five years ago. "What has changed is the need to use these tools and to be able to deliver insights," he explained. "We can talk about what is happening right now in your hospital or your plan."
Those conversations, however, are more likely to happen at a higher level in the organization now, as payers shift to population-based reimbursement schemes, Williams said.
The content reps are delivering has also become much more customized, as companies seek to make sure they are getting value out of their marketing spend.
"Pharmaceutical companies spend a lot of money on sales material content," said Shawah. Figuring out which of that content is the most useful is crucial. "If you have hundreds of pages of content, and only 10% of it is being used, you should understand why or stop using it," he said.
Sales reps can now track trends such as regional variations or how prescribing varies between doctors working with one insurance plan versus those on another.
"This has all evolved dramatically over the last ten years," said Shawah. "Now everything is happening in the digital world, with email, video calls and other communications."
Some longstanding problems still persist, though. Even though digital contacts take less time, fatigue is still an issue. According to the ZS report, doctors receive about one contact from a pharma rep per hour — whether in person, by email, phone or other means.
But that challenge should further push companies to deliver more valuable content to doctors — when they want it and in the format they want it. By leaning on data and better analytics on what messages resonate, pharma stands a chance of overcoming declining access to physicians.