A recent report from ZS Associates affirms a decade-long decline in pharmaceutical rep access to physicians. The reasons are well known: doctors have busier schedules, they’re joining large practices or hospitals with “no-see” policies that prevent reps from coming in, and in many cases doctors simply don’t think it’s worth seeing reps.
Although physicians don’t have time for reps, they do need their content. It’s just that now they would rather get it through digital channels.
There has been an evolution in the role of reps from someone who delivers a promotional reminder to someone who is more experienced and savvy and who serves as an account executive helping to provide doctors with the resources and content they need and want.
It’s no longer just an evolution
But what was once a gradual change is now accelerating. According to ZS, in 2008, 23% of doctors put restrictions on reps; now it’s 49%. Basically, half of the doctors in the United States now have moderate to severe restrictions on rep visits.
What we’re beginning to see is a business model evolution. Driven by technology and economics, the role of the traditional manufacturer’s rep is dying.
How fast will this happen?
Diffusion of Innovation
We have a tool that can predict what will likely happen. It’s called the Diffusion of Innovation theory. The theory, first published in 1962, outlines how a new idea, innovation or technology becomes diffused throughout society.
The theory addresses the questions around how innovation spreads. How connected is the social system into which this innovation is being introduced? How tightly knit is the social system of users, and how much do they talk to each other?
The diffusion of innovation postulates that at a certain point an innovation will reach a point of critical mass, at which it then runs freely. The innovation becomes very common – basically, everybody adopts it. For example, if you look at a technology like the smartphone, at one point in time there were only early adopters. But once the technology had matured to the point where cohorts of business people and travelers discovered the value of mobile connectivity and Apple had eliminated the user experience barriers, ownership proliferated. Suddenly it reached a point of critical mass at which everybody had to have a smartphone.
When I look at the numbers from the ZS Associates report, I think the same principles are at work in the transition from analog to digital sourcing of content for doctors. This is another example of change reaching a point of critical mass.
Although we may see the number of physician practices putting restrictions on reps accelerate over the next few years, the biggest change will come from physicians who simply don’t need regular visits from reps because they can access the drug content and submit the sample requests they need online.
Is pharma ready for the phase that Geoffrey Moore calls the “tornado”in which peer acceptance reaches a critical mass and most physician practices restrict access? Are our pharma brands ready for this change, and do they have other alternative channels, particularly digital channels, at the ready to provide the content that doctors want and need?
Eventually the role of the traditional rep is going away. For the foreseeable future, the rep will still play an important role at the front end of a new product launch where there’s new science to discuss. But from that point on, all of the reminders, all of the updates and all of the requests for samples can be done digitally.
While we knew that more and more doctors were restricting rep access — that fact isn’t really new — what’s more interesting is the speed with which this trend is reaching critical mass.
Is pharma really ready for that shift?