Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives: A Slowly Vanishing Breed?

What do the Tasmanian devil, Jamaican iguana, Madagascar tree frog, and pharmaceutical sales representatives have in common?

The answer is that they are each on an endangered species list. Those well dressed, smooth talking reps who serve as the face and image of pharmaceutical companies are now under attack from multiple directions. They face a grim and uncertain future.

At their peak in 2007, there were over 102,000 pharmaceutical representatives in the United States alone. Pharmaceutical sales positions with their mix of financial incentives, benefits, job flexibility, and perceived prestige were ultra-competitive. Unfortunately for drug reps, their numbers have declined to approximately 90,000.

A pharmaceutical consulting firm estimates that the number will dwindle to less than 75,000 within the next three years. What factors are responsible for the gradual decline in pharmaceutical representatives?

Giant pharmaceutical companies have been aggressively slashing sales jobs as part of a coordinated effort to reduce costs and maintain corporate profitability.  The global economic recession has not spared big pharmaceutical companies as revenues have deteriorated.

Weakening pharmaceutical sales have been accentuated by the inability of the industry to develop new medications to replace older popular medications which were lucrative, but are soon scheduled to lose patent protection.

In the past 12 months there have been three gigantic mergers within the pharmaceutical sector as companies try to maximize their synergies and remain competitive in a challenging economic marketplace. With each consolidation thousands of pharmaceutical representatives lost their jobs.

In the past, qualified pharmaceutical representatives would simply sign on with another drug company and begin marketing a different slate of medications; however, in our current environment there are far fewer pharmaceutical companies remaining and the majority of them have recently downsized their sales forces.

The newest predicament for pharmaceutical sales representatives are the doctors that they call on. A growing number of physicians are no longer willing to meet with pharmaceutical sales representatives. Others will do so only during scheduled meetings.

A physician profiling firm estimated that 25 percent of doctors currently work for groups that refuse to meet with pharmaceutical sales representatives. Of those that do, nearly 40 percent require an appointment. Both figures are expected to increase.

As physicians are forced to see more patients on a daily basis they are less willing to spend their valuable time interacting with drug reps.

In addition many physicians are finally realizing that the medical information provided to them by drug companies and their representatives is incomplete, distorted and grossly biased. This growing skepticism combined with the fact that many doctors have grown tired of being besieged by legions of pharmaceutical representatives accounts for much of the climate change. This negative sentiment is reflected in a 2008 physician survey which highlighted a growing negative view of both drugmakers and drug reps.

Things potentially could get worse for pharmaceutical representatives if the doctor group National Physicians Alliance has its way. This organization is spearheading the “Unbranded Doctor Campaign” which urges all physicians to refuse industry gifts and avoid all pharmaceutical representatives in order to circumvent the conflict of interest criticism leveled at physicians by consumer groups.

In response to the “Unbranded Doctor Campaign” the pharmaceutical industry voluntarily banned the marketing freebies and gifts to doctors that the industry had become famous for.

Pharmaceutical companies will continue to seek the attention of physicians by using less formal methods. In another troublesome development for pharmaceutical representatives, a drug marketing research firm recently released a study that showed 45,000 doctors met with pharmaceutical companies online in 2008 and that nearly 300,000 additional doctors would be willing to do so.

Having the ability to market directly to doctors without having to fund and train a human sales force would seem to be a financial windfall for big pharmaceutical companies and a further headache for pharmaceutical representatives.

The landscape has changed dramatically for both the pharmaceutical industry and pharmaceutical representatives. Their relationship with physicians will never be the same and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

As big pharma continues to navigate these unchartered waters nervous pharmaceutical representatives will watch with fear for future changes that will likely not bode well for their long term survival.