Back to the Future?

Some states want to block access to doctor-level prescribing data. And the AMA helps members keep prescription records away from sales reps. An "old timer" remembers how he sold before databases came along. (Very well, as a matter of fact.)
Oct 01, 2006



Like Marty McFly, the character played by Michael J. Fox in the movie Back to the Future, pharmaceutical companies may need to go back in time to assure their own future. McFly was a time-traveling 1980s teenager who landed unexpectedly in the 1950s, and discovered that he needed to spark a romance between his parents to assure his future birth. The problem pharma companies face, if less existential, might be equally baffling for today's sales departments. After training a generation of sales reps and managers on store-bought physician prescribing data, sales executives face the possibility that their data supply may dry up. If it does, pharma has to remember how it used to sell to doctors—before anyone had the luxury of databases full of prescribing data.

In reality, this is not yet a big problem. New Hampshire, which passed a law to ban the use of prescribing data, represents less than one percent of the nation's market for prescription drugs. And, so far at least, physicians enrolled in the American Medical Association's PDRP program are but one half of one percent of the AMA's 800,000 members. But the danger signs are out there, and it might be time to think about future—and past—selling strategies.

If access to physician prescribing data continues to decrease, the just-look-it-up mentality of too many sales reps will, by necessity, become a thing of the past. But as someone who has worked 15 years in the industry, I'm here to tell you that the way of the past—developing sources in a community and crafting a sales strategy with the information they disclose, helped make me more efficient and enabled me to respect my customer's time. Back in the day, when I carried the bag, I started out with little information about a new territory besides zip-code sales data. I did fine. And if data granularity disappears, the sales representative of the future can still succeed.


A Sales Rep´s Tangled Web
Don't get me wrong. I do not prefer the old ways to what we do today. Since the mid-1990s, pharmaceutical companies have built practically all of their sales operations and business processes—from targeting, physician segmentation, sales-force automation systems, and incentive-compensation plans—on prescriber-level information they purchase from data aggregators like Verispan and IMS. This information allows pharma to identify the prescribing patterns of specific physicians and decide where to focus sales activity. The data enables reps and their supervisors to pinpoint messages and develop valuable medical information that is customized to the prescriber—thereby offering more value to patients and themselves.

But as wonderful as this data is, pharma can relearn how to live without it. Sales managers should still be able to adjust business practices, run departments, and train sales representatives—even if we have to work the way I did, when I first became a rep.

Zip-Code Data

When I was a sales representative for McNeil Pharmaceutical in 1991, I received zip-code data every month. The data broke down product sales for my medications and competitors by zip code throughout my territory. My first step in analyzing the data was to compare the new numbers to the previous period, to gauge any changes. I then calculated my net-to-market (my product's percent growth or decrease minus the market's percent growth or decrease for the period) to assess overall progress. The net-to-market gave me a context for my product's growth or decline. Then I had to rely on my business acumen and local-market knowledge to help identify the key high prescribers or the ones who gained or lost market share. It was at this point that I was able to assess the effect of my targeting.