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Seeing Through Physicians' Eyes: Three Priorities for Pharma


Physicians who show true empathy for their patients tend to have better outcomes. Their patients stick to treatment plans, heal faster, and have fewer hospital readmissions. The same principle applies to pharma companies trying to market to physicians, write Pratap Khedkar and Malcolm Sturgis.

There’s a growing body of evidence showing the value of empathy among physicians. Those who show true empathy for their patients (also known as bedside manner) tend to have better outcomes. Their patients stick to treatment plans, heal faster, and have fewer hospital readmissions. That makes intuitive sense. In any kind of communication­, seeing things from the other person’s perspective leads to better results.

That same principle applies to pharma companies trying to market to physicians. An AffinityMonitor study looked at how pharma companies engage in marketing efforts with physicians, tracking actual interactions (not just stated preferences) among pharmaceutical companies and U.S. healthcare providers. This year’s analysis includes real-world data for 632,000 physicians and more than 100 pharma brands-123 million interactions in all. The range of engagement channels includes sale rep visits, telesales, speaker programs, direct mail, self-serve digital content, email marketing, and other digital channels such as mobile alerts.

A key finding of the research is that as physician access for sales reps continues to decline, pharma companies are (understandably) trying to make up the difference through other channels. The study data shows that pharma companies have sent nearly 50% more digital messages-including emails and mobile alerts-than the number of personal face-to-face calls they have attempted. Those alternate channels tend to cost less-particularly digital, such as emails-so there’s little risk in sending them out in high numbers. (The philosophy can be summed up as, “When in doubt, send it out.”) But seen from the eyes of physicians, the volume of such messages can quickly become overwhelming.

For example, when asked, “How do pharma companies typically interact with you?” one oncologist told us, “More than anything, they’re taking a big dart board and picking up the darts and just flinging them and hoping one of them will stick. From my point of view, they’re saying, ‘Look, this is all our ammunition and that’s the target-let’s throw.’ I feel bad because they’re missing, but even if they hit the target, I may not pay attention to it.”

What’s the solution? Rather than blanketing customers with marketing messages simply because they can (the supposedly “efficient” path to reach), pharma companies need to apply some empathy, and consider the situation from the perspective of physicians. There is no single channel that always works today, and we don’t see that changing in the future. What will change is that pharma companies who stay in the game will get much smarter about selectively deploying the tactics at their disposal, focusing more on the quality of the customer interaction than on “reach at all costs.” By determining what kind of content doctors want to receive, which channels they prefer, and how frequently they want to be contacted, companies can tailor their marketing strategy and make sure that their messages are resonating.

Information overload

As part of our research, we looked at a composite, top-tier, multi-specialty pharma company, based on actual marketing outreach efforts from companies that fit that profile. Assuming that the composite company segments its customers-as all pharma companies do-we estimated that it would have about 17,000 physicians in the top category. Those physicians would receive 144 contacts a year from the company, or one every 2.5 days. (The top 100 doctors would receive more than 400 contacts a year.) That’s from just one company.

When you flip things around and look at this situation from the physician’s perspective-across multiple pharma companies-the volume of marketing messages looks even more overwhelming. The top 30,000 doctors in our sample receive a projected 2,700 industry contacts a year, or 7.5 each day (including weekends and holidays). For physicians in certain specialty areas that have a lot of overlap among pharma companies, the number of marketing messages can grow even higher-up to twice as many.

As noted above, there’s little dollar cost in this volume for pharma companies. Yet there are very real nonfinancial costs. For one, a steady onslaught of marketing messages can rapidly become something that physicians deliberately tune out. To them, it all gets mentally labeled as spam. In addition, the volume can also drown out more valuable contacts you’ve initiated, and negatively affect channels that work. Overall, it simply creates a negative experience for the people that pharma companies are trying to win over.

Three priorities for pharma companies

To avoid this-and better connect on a personal level with individual physicians-pharma companies should focus on three priorities. First, they should determine the type of content that physicians will engage in. Some prefer clinical information communicated by a peer. Others want patient assistance materials. Still others want a library of self-serve content that they can access on their own. By understanding these preferences, pharma companies can ensure that they’re communicating the most relevant information to their target doctors-and not distracting them with unwanted extras. Clearly, it’s not easy to determine the preferences of individual physicians. But it’s increasingly feasible through systematic tracking and measurement of the types of content companies put out, along with analyzing new, highly granular data like rep-doctor iPad interactions.

Second, pharma companies should understand the channels by which physicians prefer to be contacted. The study data show this clearly. Some physicians still prefer live conversations with reps, which offer pharma companies the best ROI at scale. Yet there’s a growing number of providers who are harder to see, and whom pharma companies still want to reach regardless of cost (if they can). Still others may be rep-accessible but represent less sales potential; to reach these people, pharma companies can use lower-cost channels-such as direct mail, speaker programs, or digital media-but only with doctors who explicitly prefer to engage that way. Telesales is also an option, particularly for doctors in remote geographies where it would be expensive and inefficient to send a sales rep.

Notably, there are interdependencies among these channels as well. For example, our research found that physicians are twice as likely to open emails sent by a sales rep as they are for emails sent directly from the company’s headquarters.

Third, pharma companies should understand the impact of frequency. Different channels show different saturation points. For example, the data show that doctors tend to open the first few emails for a given brand, but after receiving about 10 emails, they stop. For messages sent through a mobile app, the saturation point is lower-doctors stop responding after about four messages. And direct mail has a much higher saturation point (though a lower engagement rate overall). By understanding the effect of frequency on response rates, companies can ensure that they are not burning out their physicians. Similarly, pharma companies can use analytics to understand how marketing channels reinforce each other and lead to greater scale. Through this analysis, companies can develop a clear understanding of the best action-or combination of actions-at the right time and the right sequence, including sales reps, to increase their engagement with individual physicians. That helps companies optimize their investment for marketing and sales campaigns.

In sum, the marketing environment for pharma is far more complex than in the past, and it’s getting more so every day. Given that challenge, companies can win by using data to understand the affinities of the doctors they’re trying to reach and tailoring the content, channel, and frequency of their marketing messages accordingly. The objective should be the right message, through the right channel, at the right time. Notably, that may be a lower volume of marketing for individual physicians than pharma companies are currently sending out, but it will also bring higher engagement rates and create a better customer experience. Moreover, physicians will reward companies that can see the world through their eyes for a change.

In marketing-as in medicine-a little empathy goes a long way.

About the Authors

is a Philadelphia-based managing principal at global sales and marketing firm ZS, and oversees the firm’s global Pharmaceuticals and Biotech practice. 







leads the AffinityMonitor™ offering at global sales and marketing firm ZS

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