Who is Killing the Pharmaceutical Sales Position?

The role of the pharmaceutical sales representative (Chapter 9 in Pharmaplasia™) has been waning for some time.  The internet is full of discussions about the sales representative (“detail person”, “detail man”, “detailing”) position being dead, dying, or even obsolete. Some discussions are defensive while others are unrealistically optimistic about a return to the traditional role.  At the same time,  Pharmaceutical companies are trying to balance the challenges of physician access with the fact that pharmaceutical sales has been one of the most impactful marketing tools available.  More importantly, the pharmaceutical sales representative was probably the best way to inform, and yes, “educate” physicians about prescription drugs, especially new products.

There is a lot of blame to go around for why pharmaceutical sales is struggling for survival.  There is a rarely talked about and hidden reason but first here are a few of the more obvious and frequently complained about reasons for why pharmaceutical sales representatives find themselves either unemployed or wondering if they will still have a job at the end of the year:

Some have also postulated that the advent of electronic communications and internet availability of medical and drug information have made sales representative obsolete.  I believe electronic communications should not be seen as a threat or replacement for pharmaceutical sales but rather could be a future necessity for handling the large volume of data available and to explain the complexities of new treatment options.

Some have suggested sales and sales management brought it upon themselves with questionable sales tactics and the hiring of less than professionally or scientifically qualified sales personnel.  While these may have ultimately contributed to the continuing demise of this important position, I believe you have to dig deeper to uncover the genesis of this unfortunate evolution.

Some have blamed management for just about everything and in this case, you don’t have to be very specific, from C-level to front line managers.  Unreasonable expectations and “stretch” sales forecasts drove a lot of sales organizations and individuals to do “whatever it took” to meet those sales goals.  Sales management complied with these expectations and was bound and determined to make their incentive bonuses and ensure their place at the annual sales incentive trip.  Again, “whatever it takes” to make or exceed your numbers.

Marketing often built those sales forecasts out of hubris and pushed the sales organization to deliver while also provided the marketing message and resources to do “whatever it took” to  deliver the sales.  Think of the virtually uncontrolled, unlimited (by standards for most other industries) funding for tchotches, lunch and learns, speaker programs, and of course, samples and literature (marketing materials).  Of course reps were encouraged to fully deploy and leverage all their resources.

Some people like to blame the regulatory environment (constraints on what reps can say and do) while others point to a less tolerant healthcare market (increasingly difficult physician access and institutional limitations on promotion).  These, however, while real, were more a response to increasingly aggressive and sometimes questionable (unethical or illegal?) activities rather than being inherent in the market.

No doubt, pressure on sales representatives to make their numbers was and is intense and often requires incredible selling skills and creativity to compensate for the realities of marginal product profiles given the market expectations and sometimes even harmful side effects of the products they were selling.

This leads us to one of the less obvious sources for why I believe the sales representative position has become threatened with extinction.  And that is,  the lack of credible clinical data and appropriate regulatory labeling to support the commercial claims needed to deliver the forecast sales numbers.  Sometimes the clinical data and marketing messages provided to the sales organizations have even been inaccurate, intentionally misleading, or even concocted.

Solid credible clinical data and regulatory approved labeling to support commercial claims mitigates the need for overly aggressive and questionable sales activities and reduces the regulatory constraints that bar sales representatives from having meaningful clinical discussions with physicians.  It is hard to imagine the level of sales that might have been achieved had the talented, skilled sales representatives been armed with better clinical data and stronger, more definitive regulatory label claims.

Research teams pushed (and senior management was pushing even harder) for approval rather than building comprehensive product profiles to support the commercial expectations.  The get-it-to-market drive for approval to attain indication- based label claims without differentiation or consideration for what sales representatives will be able to say or use in promotion unfairly puts sales representatives in an awkward, boring, professionally compromised, and near impossible selling situation.

So before you blame or criticize sales and sales management for jeopardizing the pharmaceutical sales position, look at the clinical data they had to work with.  You might find that they did a better job than might have been expected and you might find the reasons they felt compelled to go to such extremes in some cases to make their sales numbers.


Healthcare Reform Implications for the Pharmaceutical Industry Highlighted in New Book, Pharmaplasia™, Published by PharmaReform.com author, Mike Wokasch

“… Pharmaplasia is important reading for anyone with a vested interest in the pharmaceutical industry (especially those who work in it).”

(Four of Five Stars)

ForeWord CLARION Reviews

Unlike other books written about the pharmaceutical industry, Mike Wokasch, a 30 year industry veteran, delves into the causes of the industry’s current state of dysfunction.  He provides practical solutions for a prosperous future, even in light of the increasing regulatory constraints, restrictions on marketing and sales, and the demands of an increasingly cost conscious market with its own challenges imposed by healthcare reform.

The author provides an insider’s perspective with unique insights into the unintended consequences of the industry’s rapid growth and explores why some Big Pharma companies may be too big for the complexities of the science, the business, and the market.  Much like his blog PharmaReform.com, this 180 page book is not an exposé but rather a hard hitting discussion of how the industry’s mistakes and poor decisions have led to serious questions about its outdated business model, its long-term commercial viability, and the imbalance between corporate priorities for “profits and patients” that have driven product sales but often put patient health and safety at risk.

Pharmaplasia™, which is available in hard and soft cover at  www.Pharmaplasia.com,  addresses important management, organizational, functional, and philosophical questions such as:

  • How will Healthcare Reform affect the pharmaceutical industry?
  • What do pharmaceutical companies need to do to better align with the expectations of the market and to adapt to Healthcare Reform?
  • What factors, actions, and decisions led to the current state of industry dysfunction?
  • Why can’t $65 billion in annual R & D spending produce more innovative products?
  • What did organizational growth do to pharmaceutical companies and the industry?
  • Is the role of the pharmaceutical sales representative obsolete?
  • What do pharmaceutical companies need to do to reestablish trust and credibility in the market?
  • What should pharmaceutical executives focus on as they reconfigure their business models?

Industry executives and employees will relate to the historical insider perspective but more importantly, take away practical recommendations for increasing R & D productivity, preserving profitability in the face of healthcare reform, and reestablishing public trust and credibility.

Pharmaceutical industry service providers and vendors will better understand their customers and comprehend the transformative challenges the industry faces; ultimately they will be in a better position to align their products and services to the address the changing needs of the industry.

Healthcare providers will relate to how the industry needs to evolve, appreciate the need for and value of “conflict of interest-free” relationships with the industry, and gain further understanding of the important role they play in ensuring that their patients receive the best available treatment options.

Patients and the general public will enjoy the insider perspective about Big Pharma while learning what they should be able to expect from an industry we all depend upon for innovative new drug treatments that can relieve pain and suffering and save lives.

Preview Table of Contents

Preview Chapter 1

Go to www.Pharmaplasia.com

Pharmaceutical Industry Physicians and Scientists are the Key to Reestablishing Trust

Corporate integrity should start at the top of the organization and every employee must do their share to make it a reality but pharmaceutical company physicians and scientists are the best hopes for reestablishing pharmaceutical industry trust… if they can survive in their organizations.

Integrity and objective science were once the hallmark of pharmaceutical research.   Valid testing methodologies, rigorous analysis and interpretation of data, and accurate complete disclosure of findings and understandings provide the medical community with a sound basis for making informed clinical decisions.  Too many case studies over the past several decades, however, have raised serious questions about the integrity and objectivity of pharmaceutical research.

Not to make excuses but, physicians and scientists at pharmaceutical companies are subjected to intense organizational pressures that can cajole them into compromising their objectivity and scientific integrity.  These pressures come in subtle and sometimes not so subtle forms.  Emotional attachment, satisfaction of personal ambitions, peer pressure, and management can all influence decision making and can provide a rationale for questionable actions taken.

Emotional attachment results from years and sometimes careers worth of product development, creating an instinctive need to nurture and protect “their babies”.   Wanting to maintain a positive outlook, securing incentive compensation, enhancing professional stature, and wanting to be a part of the team can all drive the behavior of individuals and groups to do things they might not otherwise consider.

Perhaps the single biggest challenge for industry physicians and scientists trying to maintain scientific integrity is dealing with the implicit and explicit demands and expectations of management.

Some of the types of scientific integrity issues we are talking about include:

  • Designing studies around problems without disclosing the problem
  • Data manipulation
  • Covering up, hiding, or minimizing relevant negative data
  • Disproportionately highlighting efficacy benefits to mitigate safety issues
  • Not challenging or correcting company statements (or marketing) when they know they are scientifically not valid, incomplete, or misleading

None of these happens in a vacuum as it would be rare that they could be accomplished by a single individual without the knowledge of others.  At the same time, an individual physician or scientist puts their career at risk when they challenge organizational thinking and management prompted or endorsed indiscretions.

That being said, pharmaceutical industry physicians and scientists are often the only ones who have the corporate platform and organizational position power to guide management regarding what can be supported scientifically or what can or can not be claimed clinically.   They are in the best position to insist on integrity in drug development as well as in how the company promotes its products. They are in the best position to clarify and correct misleading corporate commentary, statements, or implications.

When integrity and objectivity of the science around a product are ensured, when scientists hold their management accountable for accurate and complete disclosures, and when they don’t let marketing and sales make misleading or false claims, then pharmaceutical industry physicians and scientists will provide the basis for restoring confidence and credibility in the work they are doing.  An organization that embraces integrity will value these physicians and scientists and reward them for keeping the company honest.  Unfortunately, companies that do not embrace integrity will probably find a reason fire these these physicians and scientists, if they don’t decide to quit first.


Perceptions of the Pharmaceutical Industry can make Normal Business Practices seem Unethical or Illegal

Those who have read this blog know that I am not into making excuses for pharmaceutical industry misbehavior.  At the same time, it is important to understand the impact of how outsiders (those not involved in the pharmaceutical industry) are going to interpret actions and behaviors.   What might appear to be clearly unethical or illegal to an outsider may require an informed interpretation of circumstances or intent.

Think about it.  At what point are consulting assignments and advisory payments to physicians a bribe or kickback?  Could providing lunch for the office staff really be a bribe or kickback?  Is any comment about product efficacy or safety that is not verbatim out of the package insert possibly “off-label” promotion?  When are graphic interpretations or implications from an advertisement “off-label” promotion?  At what point do random side effects and adverse reactions become “hidden” if not publicly broadcast to the media?  Are systematic miscalculations of pricing always an indication of fraud?  When is competitive pricing considered price fixing?  At what point does editorial assistance become “ghostwriting?”

I am not an attorney and this is not a legal discussion.  Rather, this is about past history of proven and alleged pharmaceutical industry misbehavior including illegal activities.  Perhaps most disappointing has been the fact that as prosecutors pieced together their better informed perspective of alleged illegal activities they often found both willful intent and additional even more egregious activities to support the initial allegations.   The seemingly endless offenses have tainted the perception of prosecutors, legislators, healthcare professionals, regulators, industry critics, and of course, patients.  Virtually everything the industry does is now suspect and often transformed into allegations of unethical if not illegal activities.  Even normal course of doing business activities (e.g., presenting a favorable product profile, trying to influence prescribing, and providing samples) are now being viewed as inappropriate and possibly illegal.

It all boils down to a lack of trust and credibility.  The industry can’t even credibly defend itself to maintain normal business practices because there are just too many cases that demonstrate companies are willing to betray this trust and take advantage of the market for financial gain.  Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t seem to be too concerned or you would have seen a dramatic change in behavior.

Before trust and credibility can be reestablished the industry and company executives must be on their best behavior.  Once again, actions and consistent behavior will speak louder than words or intermittent gratuitous gestures.  Trust and credibility are much harder to reestablish than to maintain.


Commercially Successful Off-label Promotion Should be an Embarrassment to the Medical Profession

While there are legitimate cases of last resort off-label prescribing (especially in oncology), many examples that have been brought to the attention of the courts that are not desperate attempts to find a viable treatment where nothing else has worked. To the contrary, the commercial success of off-label prescribing that has led to billions of dollars of incremental revenue for pharmaceutical companies should be an embarrassment for academics, healthcare providers, professional medical societies, and medical education providers.  Why should they be embarrassed?

They should be embarrassed because many of these cases demonstrate that the medical profession has no effective way to educate physicians about prescription drugs.  More importantly, it demonstrates that the evaluation process used by physicians to select treatments for their patients is less than rigorous and not necessarily based on package insert information, a critical evaluation of clinical data, or the literature.  Simple “show me the data” requests with a diligent comparative evaluation should have revealed the data gaps and more importantly, exposed the marketing hype and sales slight of hand for many of these campaigns.  How embarrassing for the medical establishment to have to face suggestions from litigation that pharmaceutical sale representatives and paid physician advocates have the skill and ability to influence prescribing practice without even having legitimate clinical proof of efficacy.

Rather than reveling in the success of winning billions of dollars in fines and settlements levied against the pharmaceutical industry, the plaintiffs and the medical profession should see this as a disturbing scorecard of medical education ineffectiveness and the inability of practicing physicians to critically evaluate prescription drugs for use in their practice.

It is also ironic and very disconcerting that states, private insurance companies, and even the federal government (CMS), all of whom espouse rigorous expert formulary evaluation processes, willingly encourage this prescribing by paying for these off-label uses without approved label claims or even supportive clinical data.  These very same organizations however, find it lucrative to sue pharmaceutical companies for what is actually their own lack of due diligence (no clinical proof of efficacy or safety required), ineffective medical education processes, and lax prescribing oversight (more than just a few cases needing this product off-label might have raise concerns).

There are five simple solutions for preventing pharmaceutical companies from enhancing their sales from off-label promotion. These five actions would make it less attractive, less tempting, and less profitable for pharmaceutical companies to even consider off-label promotion.

  • If the government, insurers, or plan mangers don’t approve of off-label prescribing, they shouldn’t pay for off-label uses.  If they decide to pay, they should not be allowed to sue the pharmaceutical companies for their own negligence in product assessments, inability to control prescribing, or ineffectiveness of their medical education processes.
  • Physicians should be required by law to inform patients that they are being prescribed a product off-label for their condition.  If the patient agrees to the treatment, they should not be allowed to sue the pharmaceutical company for any reason related to the use of that product.
  • Physicians merely have to be more demanding for data and rigorous in their evaluation of off-label claims made by sales people and paid physician advocates.  If they agree to use the product off-label, they should assume all liabilities related to its use.
  • Academia and medical education providers should be doing a much better job of teaching physicians about treatment options and challenging, even debunking off-label claims being made by pharmaceutical companies.
  • Academics and practicing physicians should be writing articles in medical journals that challenge the off-label claims being promoted by pharmaceutical companies.

If the market feels it is inappropriate to use prescription drugs off-label, that it results in the inappropriate overuse of higher priced prescription products, and therefore contributes to inflated healthcare costs, then the market should do its part and take responsibility for better educating the physician population and better manage the off-label use of prescription drugs.