As some pharmas pivot away from a traditional direct sales approach, reps remain an important touchpoint for healthcare professionals, but physician content needs and channel preferences vary by specialty and situation.
One of the key conundrums that the COVID-19 pandemic raised for drug and device companies was that of how to educate physicians about their products in a time of social distancing, lockdowns and limitations on in-person engagement. The prevailing model of face-to-face rep-physician meetings had been coming under strain for years as physicians and other healthcare professionals faced a time crunch and increasing employer limitations on rep engagement designed to constrain prescribing.
Digital technologies offered a potential means of reaching pressed-for-time physicians, through remote formats such as live video meetings as well as “self-detailing” programs and emails from reps. However, these formats hadn’t yet shown much traction, which discouraged many pharmas from investing in them. Would the urgent need for healthcare professionals to stay up to date on emerging treatments while keeping themselves and their patients safe change that calculus?
In January, Pfizer answered that question in the affirmative, reportedly planning to eliminate several hundred U.S. sales positions on the expectation that healthcare professionals would want around half their interactions with pharmas to be remote in the future. “We are evolving into a more focused and innovative biopharma company and evolving the way we engage with healthcare professionals in an increasingly digital world,” the company told Reuters in a statement.
It remains uncertain where the balance of remote versus in-person rep engagement is likely to land as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses to an endemic phase, but Clarivate physician survey data from 2021 and 2022 indicate that remote engagement is in demand, under certain circumstances, and will remain part of the multichannel mix for sales forces going forward.
Rep engagement for product education remains robust
In Clarivate’s surveys of U.S. physician multichannel behavior last year, we saw in-person rep visits making a tentative comeback, with 47% of all physicians having interacted with reps in the flesh over the previous three months as of July, 2021 – still far below the 63% of U.S. physicians reporting in-person details in March of 2020. Relatedly, use of non-personal avenues of rep engagement had declined from early-pandemic heights, but remained far more robust than they were pre-pandemic.
While in-person visits remained the most impactful form of physician engagement overall, with 66% of U.S. physicians saying they’d influenced their clinical decision-making, live remote engagements weren’t far behind, with 53% rating live webcasts with reps influential and 50% saying the same of live video meetings. In fact, 43% agreed that “face-to-face interaction with pharma sales reps through video calls is more engaging than any other form of remote interactions.” Other forms of remote engagement were deemed less influential, but can comprise important tools in a multichannel approach — 34% of physicians agreed that they appreciated it when reps checked in periodically over email.
Sixty percent of U.S. physicians expected to continue with remote rep meetings in the next 12 months, indicating that even as in-person visits pick up, remote formats are becoming routine.
Within this evolving multichannel mix, physicians are accessing different information sources to answer specific needs. They continue to rely on sales reps to provide info on products and services – in our 2022 study, 73% of dermatologists reported accessing information on specific products through reps, as did 61% of gastroenterologists. While the information needs of physicians can vary widely by specialty, this preference for accessing product information through reps remains a common theme.
Physician content needs and preferred channels are situational
Our 2022 study data shows that U.S. physicians across specialties are accessing information immediately before, during and after patient consultations. Sales reps make an impact in varying stages across specialties.
For example, 49% of medical oncologists access product information after patient consultations, but 59% say they are more likely to review clinical trial information after first accessing quality product information, while 18% will go directly to a product sales rep. However, while 14% of medical oncologists also access product services (e.g., patient education and assistance programs), 34% rely on product sales reps to access these services. By contrast, 80% of hematology non-oncologists prefer to research information and services on third party websites when accessing product services.
Opportunity for reps to address condition- and specialty-specific content needs
“We continue to observe circumstance-driven behaviors by physicians across specialties,” said Clarivate Analyst Archana Pandya. “More importantly, physicians make targeted decisions around disease specific patient care interactions. In this year’s study, we’re finding that U.S physicians are running into challenges around the diagnosis and treatment phase of specific diseases, and so express a need for information that will help them in each phase of the disease progression.”
In fact, 44% of cardiologists cited discerning symptoms upon presentation as a major challenge in the diagnosis phase. Among endocrinologists, 46% flagged a lack of details around patient history as a pain point. More than half of cardiologists (52%) and endocrinologists (58%) agree that medical information would be helpful to address those unmet needs in the diagnostic phase. During the treatment phase, 41% of cardiologists say medical information is helpful, while 55% of endocrinologists prefer patient services information.
“Altogether, there are different unmet needs across specialties that can be addressed with specific information sources allowing sales reps to provide the necessary information,” said Archana.
Clarivate will be publishing an updated suite of patient and physician studies over the second half of the year, with much more granular data on information-seeking behaviors around content needs by physician specialty and disease/condition-specific patient care interactions.
To learn more about Clarivate physician studies, please email us here.
Methodology: All data cited are from Clarivate physician studies, including Taking the Pulse U.S. 2021 (March-May 2021) and Re-Taking the Pulse: COVID Toolkit U.S. 2021 (July-August 2021), along with the recently published specialty-specific data from Clarivate’s Physician Multichannel Study, Phase I, Taking the Pulse U.S. 2022 (April-June 22). For more information on sales rep dynamics, stay tuned for insights from Phase II of our 2022 HCP Study, Re-Taking the Pulse, which will be published in November 2022.
About the author
Matthew Arnold serves as a research analyst and content strategist. He joined Clarivate after covering the life science industries as a journalist for more than a decade. He has followed the evolution of pharma multichannel engagement from the dawn of DTC advertising to the advent of remote care and digital medicine.