Internet healthcare

May 1, 2001
Brian Mulhall

,
Mark Heitner

Pharmaceutical Representative

You, the doctor and the sales call.

The world of Internet healthcare is quickly evolving and will impact your job as a pharmaceutical sales representative. By developing a basic understanding of e-health and increasing your knowledge of Internet issues relating to physicians, you will begin to see that the Internet and healthcare have the potential to form a natural partnership that offers pharmaceutical and medical representatives new and innovative ways to reach their key customers.

Patients are driving e-health

The Internet has done little to change healthcare … yet. This is because the key components needed for success, physicians, have been slow to use the Internet in their clinical practice. This is changing rapidly because patients are demanding online access to physician offices. A recent report by New York-based Cyber Dialogue estimates that 33.4 million patients are willing to switch to a physician who has a practice Web site and offers e-mail access. This is why a recent report by New York-based consulting firm Deloitte & Touche concluded, "any successful e-health strategy must address the physician to consumer connections." Tens of millions of patients report using the Internet to get healthcare information, and according to a Wall Street Journal survey, over half do so in conjunction with a physician office visit. Physicians, like it or not, are being driven to the Internet by their patients. Physicians that do not take notice have the potential to lose online patients who have become accustomed to Internet-based services in their other professional relationships.

Physicians are catching on

A Harris Interactive Survey on "Computing in the Physician Practice" showed that 89% of physicians use the Internet at their office or at home, with the average online medical doctor using it six hours per week. A survey our company conducted in May 2000, in conjunction with five medical societies, showed that 53% of all physicians have a Web site for their practice. Yet only 52% of these physicians tell their patients about the practice Web site, largely because these sites are little more than online business cards. Many Web sites for physicians do not deliver any real value to the practice, and subsequently, to the patient.

Over 60% of all small businesses today have a Web site. Many sites, however, are best described as mere brochure-ware. Companies and organizations that simply place their corporate information and sales aids on a Web page soon realize that this approach does not offer users any type of dynamic that keeps them interested. The Web surfers and consumers of today are looking for interactive approaches that make their overall experience specific, unique and customizable.

Physician practice Web sites need to meet the needs of the physician's customers, the patients, and offer tools that assist the practice in the delivery of healthcare to these patients. To do so, the site must offer outstanding clinical content that is credentialed by legitimate medical sources like medical societies, and must also offer the physician office tools like secure messaging, appointment scheduling, insurance company connectivity, and other robust applications that can make the running of a medical office more streamlined and efficient.

Physicians are, in fact, quite clear about what they think a practice Web site should do. Results of our most recent survey, shown on page 27, indicate that physicians see Web sites as a way to increase revenue, reduce expenses, save time and improve the quality of care for their patients.

In other words, these Web sites should offer patients extensive information about illness and treatment, the practice (location, hours of operations, health plans accepted), the doctor (a résumé, practice philosophy, photograph) and secure messaging that can provide a sufficient environment for healthcare communications between doctor and patient.

Opportunities for sales efforts

The simplest tactic that can be used during a sales call is to mention to physicians that opportunities are available for them to receive continuing medical education credits for learning about healthcare and the Internet. Medical societies and hospitals, supported by pharmaceutical sponsors, are starting to offer physicians CME credits that are accredited by the nation's leading medical societies. Many pharmaceutical companies are also offering these seminars themselves. Helping physicians become aware of these opportunities, especially those underwritten by your company, will be a well-received gesture.

Another tactic is to suggest to physicians that they build an interactive Web site for their patients. Pharmaceutical companies are sponsoring these sites for physicians with increasing frequency, often at little or no cost to physicians. Commonly doctors need to understand the business benefits of a Web site. Those who have recently attended an Internet-focused CME presentation, or those who are more market-savvy, are likely to respond favorably.

Once a physician has launched a Web site, the next biggest challenge comes with the actual marketing of the practice site. This is an area where your sales and marketing training can assist the office. To increase the value and function of the site, a physician must inform his or her current patients of its existence and use it as a vehicle to attract new patients. Simple suggestions like inclusion of the URL on letterhead and business cards may not seem important, but a busy physician can often overlook these items. Other suggestions you might offer include sending a brief press release to the local newspaper, placing notices in the exam rooms and adding the URL to the office yellow pages listing. These simple suggestions require no Internet knowledge on the part of the representative. That said, the Web-savvy rep can help the physician list the site on Internet search engines and other online physician finders like those run by the American Medical Association and many insurance companies. Imagine a physician's appreciation when he or she receives new patient referrals from a Web site you have helped market.

E-compliance programs

One of the biggest unsolved concerns in the industry is the unclaimed prescription. Research has estimated that anywhere from 10% to 40% of all prescriptions written are never filled by the patient. According to Forrester Research, $25 billion in prescriptions went unfilled last year. Companies spend millions of dollars annually in an attempt to improve compliance. This is a worthwhile investment, because a positive outcome can return drastic results. Improving compliance by just 5% on a $500 million dollar product represents a sales increase of $25 million. Until the advent of the Internet, most compliance programs provided little return on investment.

A network of physician Web sites with secure messaging can be used to deliver specific e-mail messages to patients about medications that a physician may prescribe. With e-compliance programs, a series of customized e-mail messages can be delivered directly to patients, from their own physician, specific to a prescription written. The Internet, and the corresponding physician network that is formed, can offer patient compliance applications delivered directly through the physician to specific patients. These e-mail messages would not only increase your sales due to an increase in patient persistence (they continue to take medication), but would also positively impact the physician's writing habits. If the doctor knows Brand X has implemented such a program, it might prove more convenient for the doctor to choose that brand over other competitors for the simple reason that Brand X provides worthwhile and timely patient education materials delivered through the Internet. If this application reduces callbacks to physicians by only 5% to 10%, physicians will see it as a worthwhile timesaver. Your product may benefit by an increase in prescriber loyalty based upon your company's support of such a state-of-the-art service.

Is Internet healthcare a topic worth mentioning during the precious time that you spend with a doctor? Quite possibly the answer is yes. As numerous surveys have shown, physicians are responding to patient demand and increasing their Web presence. This presents the sales representative an opportunity to support and assist physician offices as they embrace these new technologies. Obvious marketing concepts and insights that are second nature to the seasoned sales representative may not be apparent to the physician or staff members. Your helpful suggestions here might go a long way in differentiating you from your competitors. Helping the doctor locate a CME course on Internet issues and keeping the office informed of current issues relative to Internet healthcare are also worthwhile services you can provide.

The Internet has the potential to transform healthcare through a number of applications. It will one day affect clinical trial work, patient medication compliance and insurance claims processing in ways that were never thought possible. The most successful sales representatives will be the ones who embrace e-health and assist the medical community at the physician level in adjusting to these changes. This may prove to be the topic that allows you to be fully embraced by those key customers who are so important to your territory's success. PR