The attention-grabbing headlines of Merck's Vioxx (rofecoxib) recall serve as a reminder that the pharmaceutical industry
must be prepared to reach every sales rep at a moment's notice. To do that, companies should put in place learning management
systems (LMSs) that allow rapid, effective information exchange—a task that is particularly difficult for organizations employing
large numbers of reps with different learning needs.
How, when, and why pharma companies educate reps has changed dramatically over the years. Take contract reps, which pharma
began working with in the early 1970s. Back then, the industry used contract reps only for specific short-range promotional
needs, such as product launches or to expand physician outreach efforts. Therefore, education was comparatively easy, consisting
of an initial training that can be approximated to an information download.
Today, however, many companies use contract reps in influential positions such as audit and market development. And instead
of letting contract reps go when a project is complete, it is not uncommon for companies to integrate them into the regular
sales force. Therefore, the need to continually educate reps—something pharma has often neglected in the education equation—has
moved to the forefront.
Consider this: The pharma industry spent as much as $11.2 billion a year in 2002 to hire and employ reps but only $150 million
on knowledge transfer, according to estimates by Merck Capital Ventures and ZS Associates. That means industry is spending
significant money training reps to serve as its collective external "face," but companies are still not keeping reps current
on the evolving medical dialogue—the value-added information that doctors want.
Sales Force Snapshot
The content, frequency, and timeliness of information have also grown much more critical to pharma's success. For example,
in August 2004 when the National Cholesterol Education Program agreed to lower the acceptable level of LDL, or "bad" cholesterol,
by 30 points, it shook up the way healthcare professionals had been treating their patients for years. During that time of
confusion, physicians looked to and depended on reps for the newest information on patient care. To serve those customers,
companies had to retrain reps immediately. Field forces needed to learn new information, adopt consistent messaging about
the implications on each cholesterol-lowering treatment, and answer questions from physicians that hadn't been asked before.
But instead of zeroing in on these topics of concern for reps, many pharma companies left them drowning in outdated manuals
and training documents, yet thirsting for relevant knowledge they could actually use with the physicians they contact. After
all, reps cannot simply recite rehearsed data about a product; they must absorb and use up-to-date knowledge to appeal to
individual physicians' practice needs and patient populations.
Groundbreaking research into genetics, updated drug categories, and new legislation and health guidelines make that scenario
of rapid dissemination of education a daily reality in the industry.
Reach 'em and How
Despite the availability of cost-effective technology, few organizations have implemented changes to educational platforms
that could provide them a competitive advantage. Instead, they still rely on sales meetings, manuals, conference calls, and
internet or extranet sites to educate the front line of a multibillion-dollar industry. Others, seeing the need to be more
responsive to the emerging issues and requests for information reps face in the field, have attempted to create some interactivity
using their customer relationship management programs. But the increasingly large gaps of information at the rep-level reveal
that those current systems have shortcomings.
Instead, companies should get serious about creating a learning management system that delivers information to reps in real
time. That communications platform goes further than previous systems in several ways.