The days of the drug rep have come to an end


As I sit behind a computer in my office today at the physician’s workstation, I am baffled at the steady flow of pharmaceutical representatives that flow into our office on a daily basis.

Each rep comes in with a fancy glossy print detailing the data concerning their particular drug. My office is busy; patients are coming in and out, and medical assistants are busy checking vitals and verifying medications (and of course, entering data into the computer system EMR). Yet the reps come in and stand at the workstation until someone acknowledges them. They stand and stand, often distracting clinical staff.

These reps are given a quota of visits they must make by their superiors. Many times they will arrive with their direct supervisor in tow; they are evaluated by the relationship they may (or may not have) with a group of physicians. But my time with each and every patient I see is limited due to the increased electronic medical record work that I must do — I feel bad for the reps (it is not their fault that they are placed in this role) — but do I really have time to stop the endless flow of clinical work to speak to them? Does a pharma rep actually provide any real value to me or to my patients? Would a detail presentation by any rep change my practice?

The days of yore

In the past, pharma reps were a source of samples that I could provide to my poorer patients who could not afford their meds. This was a real value: I depended on reps to provide these medications for my patients. In the days of print-only access to journals, I may not have been as current with the medical literature. Reps would often come in and discuss breaking trial news that I had not yet had time to read about. Often they would discuss upcoming trials and plans for the future. We would have spirited “academic” debates over drugs, trial design, and outcomes or endpoints. When you were unable to attend scientific meetings, the pharma rep would often be able to summarize the latest trials after they were released.

Now, my institution no longer allows samples to be left, and honestly, if I need a drug rep to share the latest data with me then I am not doing my job as a physician. Online access to immediate data from trials upon their release makes keeping current much easier. Social media and other digital tools make it possible to attend national academic meetings such as the American Heart Association annual scientific session or the American College of Cardiology meetings allow everyone to be virtually present for groundbreaking presentations of late-breaking clinical trials.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the people who choose to be pharma reps: Many are smart, classy, well-meaning folks. However, there is a lot wrong with the antiquated pharma rep sales model in today’s world. Modern technology and easy access to data allow physicians to keep up with the latest clinical trials. Pharmaceutical detailing by reps is not very helpful; it is scripted and based solely on what the FDA allows them to say (think on label vs. off label). Reps are not allowed to talk about upcoming trials or discuss any off-label applications.

What’s the answer?

Drug prices in the United States are far too high. Pharma will argue (rightfully so) that the costs of research and development (as well as marketing) drive those costs. However, I think that there are ways to lower costs without sacrificing research and development. I would argue that a restructuring of the pharma sales force would save significant dollars. I would also argue that making the FDA approval process more streamlined, faster and more agile would also lower costs.

The current Congress is working on the 21st Century Cures Act that will address some of the issues associated with the FDA process. Ultimately, I think that pharma must adjust to the way medicine is now practiced. There is no role for the pharmaceutical representative in the office or hospital. These individuals have absolutely no bearing on my choice to prescribe a particular drug and do not contribute to my continuing medical education. Nearly 75 percent of all Americans go to the Internet after a doctor’s visit. Almost all physicians can access the Internet immediately from a smartphone or tablet. Pharma should move their marketing and sales efforts to the digital space exclusively. There is no role for in person physician-pharma rep interaction in medicine today.

Use these dollars in better ways: Fund patient assistance programs, improve treatments and fund clinical trials. Stop spending money on lunches for the office staff and on fancy packaging. Glossy detail cards are simply tossed in the trash as soon as the representative leaves the building. Focus more on patients. The days of the drug rep have come to an end.

Kevin R. Campbell is a cardiac electrophysiologist who blogs at his self-titled site, Dr. Kevin R. Campbell, MD. He is the author of Women and Cardiovascular Disease.

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