Beyond the speaker program

Pharmaceutical Representative

Forming a physician meeting group.

All pharmaceutical sales representatives recognize the value of bringing a "thought leader" to speak to our doctors about our product. However, we also know the undeniable truths of speaker programs:


•Â Often, doctors are not recognized as thought leaders unless they live at least three states away from your territory.


•Â Bonanza has been replaced by Ruth's Chris Steak House as the official restaurant of 2001 speaker programs.


•Â Sample closets are less crowded than program-capable restaurants.

After mediocre attendance at my last speaker program, entitled "My restaurant is more expensive than the other three programs you've been to this week," I looked for a different way to bring my doctors together. I wanted my doctors to get relevant and significant information, and I wanted them to take ownership in the program itself.

Starting a group

First, let me describe my doctors. I am a specialty rep. I sell to retina doctors - ophthalmologists who care for the back part of the eye. As in most sub-specialties, the differential diagnosis for many of the disease states seen by the retina doctor is complex. Some are subject to debate even among the best practitioners. Treatments include pharmaceutical, laser and surgical solutions.

I approached the section director at my largest medical school, looking for a way to get increased time with the faculty and fellows. He suggested a study club, in which attendees present pictures, or angiograms, of interesting, rare or difficult-to-diagnose patients. Doctors present cases to their peers and discuss steps taken to diagnose and manage the diseases.

I agreed to support such a meeting on a regular basis, and we decided to open up the Retina Study Club to all retina specialists in the area. I committed to coordinating meeting space, providing food (as this was to be a work meeting, no alcohol would be served), soliciting support, sending out invitations, collecting RSVPs, etc.

In a questionnaire presented on the doctor's letterhead, we asked the retina specialists if they would support such a meeting, how often they would like to see the meeting held and if they would be willing to host it. Though I was given credit for supporting the meeting, correspondence from a key doctor provided credibility in starting such a club. Support was strong, even from doctors forty miles away, and we decided to convene the Retina Study Club every other month. Three separate offices volunteered to host the meeting in their conference rooms, each providing audiovisual equipment.

Thus, the Retina Study Club's "speakers" are the doctors that attend. The content is current and relevant. The interaction between doctors of varying experience and sub-specialties is spirited and focused. Because the main drug I sell is innovative and is being studied in many ways outside of its indication, it is often debated as a solution in a number of the cases presented. My doctors let me speak for a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting, allowing me to deliver a consistent message to many of my most important doctors. Around 20 doctors regularly attend, out of about 28 doctors in the area. Meetings go as long as the doctors want to talk, usually two to three hours.

Benefits

The benefits of forming this type of club are many. Most importantly, my doctors take ownership in this meeting and provide stimulating content. Presenting cases provides doctors, often solo practitioners in relative isolation, confidence that they are current and thinking appropriately. Case discussion allows attendees to get another set of eyes - a second opinion among peers - in a non-threatening atmosphere.

Beside the obvious benefit of increased time with my doctors, the Retina Study Club provides me with a wonderful opportunity to learn about the diseases my doctors treat. I better understand how my doctors think when I get to see the way they diagnose and put together a management plan. I see to whom others turn with their most vexing problems, thus establishing my own regional thought leaders. I get to hear how my drug is used or recommended (and by whom), often in doctor-to-doctor interactions about off-label uses. Also, I can control costs by meeting in space provided by participants.

Keys to success: Seek a doctor to carry the flag for your club. Solicit input from all doctors who may attend. Establish meeting dates for the entire year. E-mail or fax meeting invitations about three weeks before each meeting. Remind invitees to bring cases. Ask for RSVPs. Follow up in person with as many doctors as possible about one week before the meeting, then e-mail a reminder the day before. In other words, push hard for attendance. Get comfortable with a caterer who offers variety and a complete meal at a reasonable cost (in my area, about $15 per person). Arrive early and help manage the audiovisual equipment.

Considerations: Choose communities large enough to get consistent attendance. Be aware of medical community politics and competitive alliances that may interfere with meeting support. In a learning environment, however, you will often see alliances set aside. Rotating the meetings across the community also helps alleviate competitive tensions. Invite everyone, and treat your smallest account the same as your biggest. Make sure the first meeting is well-attended, to establish the habit.

Reps selling to other specialties tell me that study clubs will work for them, or that they already exist. Fifteen years into pharmaceutical sales, the Study Club has provided me a great opportunity to grow.

I deeply value the relationships I have with my doctors. The Study Club gives me increased time with my doctors, in the office and out, and I feel like a part of their community. The Study Club helps me to know my physicians better and improves my credibility with them. I feel honored to learn from some of my smartest doctors.

I find attendance is much more consistent at programs titled, "Not only are thought leaders in your state; they are in your own community." PR