As pharma commercial and marketing teams plan for 2022 and examine their sales forces along with virtual and digital options it will use to reach prescribers, two factors are constant.

The first is change. The Omicron variant’s surge suggests that the flexibility and agility that pharma exhibited in 2020/2021 in communicating with prescribers—pivoting dialogues to virtual and digital platforms—are table stakes for the months ahead.

The second is commitment—both the pharma industry’s abiding commitment to healthcare professionals (HCPs), and perhaps surprisingly, the strong commitment from HCPs to the sales rep, for far more than samples.

Data on what prescribers want from pharma sales reps, sourced by Apollo Intelligence’s InCrowd unit and with industry association Intellus, underscores four imperatives that successful pharma sales and marketing teams must follow to work effectively with prescribers and drive engagement in 2022’s terms. The study explored other ways pharma can evolve stakeholder communication as the landscape changes, as well as other concerns HCPs have for the near future and how that will impact communication.

The data reflects insights from n=183 HCPs sourced in two waves, one fielded between August 7 – 9 (Apollo) and one by Intellus between Aug 9 – September 8, 2021 (Intellus). Respondents included pulmonologists (n=33), as well as primary care physicians (PCPs), cardiologists, oncologists, neurologists, and rheumatologists (n=30 for each group).

1. Please Keep My Sales Rep

Traditionally, the pharma sales rep was a key conduit for dialogue between the pharma industry and prescribers. The improvisations of digital and virtual alternatives to sales rep meetings (conferences and other communications), born during the pandemic, have fostered new appreciation for reps.

Many respondents (73%) feel in-person meetings help build connection and trust in the physician-rep relationship, although 40% complain of longer time commitments. Seventy percent said face-to-face meetings allow the rep to better support the practice needs with learning materials and samples.

In verbatim remarks, physicians said that pharma sales reps are excellent sources of information who go the extra mile to find data or science when physicians need it. Reps can provide a faster overview of how a treatment can be used, and the multiple studies supporting it. More than anything, HCPs appreciated the human connection to someone they know and trust.

2. Hybrid Options

That said, more than half (51%) of physicians prefer a hybrid model going forward, including a mix of in-person and virtual discussions because “both have benefits” and they prefer to have the choice.

Of the others, 32% prefer in-person rep meetings only, while 17% prefer virtual only.

COVID restrictions were in force when data were fielded; they may have influenced the findings. Thirty-one percent of respondents had hospital policies dictating that pharma reps must present proof of vaccination for meetings, and for 9% of respondents, meetings were required to take place outdoors.

On average, physicians report that 12 meetings in a six-month period is the right number of sales rep meetings with about a 60/40 meeting split of in-person to virtual meetings.

3. Marketing Innovation Helps Save Time

In verbatim remarks, prescribers appreciated options that save time, allow them to multitask in their few “found” moments, and meet prescribers where they are. For example, respondents mentioned some of the more innovative approaches that pharma companies have taken to engage with HCPs, including virtual roundtables, virtual exhibit halls, and sending food delivery credit for virtual dinner theaters.

4. Change and Uncertainty Will Continue

Regarding future concerns, respondents are most worried about vaccination adoption among skeptics (75%) as well as variants, both known, such as the Delta variant (73%) dominant at the time of fielding, and unknown (68%). Forty-two percent assume these concerns may limit in-person meetings, while 30% say they will monitor COVID metrics and decide accordingly about resumption of sales rep in-person meetings.

Furthermore, COVID restrictions appear to still be impacting the physician-rep dynamic. In a separate cohort of physicians, who did not meet with a pharma sales rep between February 2021 and August 2021—a time when staff vaccination levels were high, and many hospitals had relaxed former COVID restrictions—57% cited existing hospital COVID restrictions.

With COVID-19 vaccines demonstrating the ability of new technologies to reduce time-to-market and the FDA’s ability to expedite regulatory approval, marketers need even more agility and flexibility in reaching both prescriber and patient targets.

As the pharma industry continues to apply the lessons of the pandemic, the increasing digital emphasis in marketing and sales cannot supplant the role of the sales rep as trusted advisor and partner. Going forward in 2022, pharma leaderships will do well to remember that despite the pandemic disruption, physicians still want people they know and trust to help guide them in evaluating new care options.

  • Daniel S. Fitzgerald

    Dan Fitzgerald is the President & CEO at Apollo Intelligence. Dan has over 25 years of management experience in diverse vertical markets and is a leader in tech-driven research systems and data insights platforms for the life sciences and healthcare industries. Dan brings a wealth of operating experience across all life stages with a track record of leading business transformation, enterprise growth, and building high-performing teams.

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