It’s no secret that the pharmaceutical industry is undergoing a dramatic movement toward niche markets and personalized treatments. By 2017, some industry experts predict that specialty drugs might represent as much as 45% of manufacturer sales.

The growth is also not limited to just the East or West Coasts. New companies are growing and expanding in the Midwest and South as states offer incentives to attract the industry. Florida, where I work as a specialty brand marketer, has its share. There are now a number of research-based companies that are developing products focused on autoimmune diseases, hematology, oncology, nephrology and infectious disease. In time, these companies will be looking to move forward to commercialize their specialty products.

Specialty vs. Traditional Pharma Marketing

If you are looking to transition your career from Big Pharma into specialty pharma, you’ll find the specialty market presents many different challenges to marketers that are not as visible in a traditional pharma model. These challenges can make a brand marketer’s role more difficult, but definitely not less rewarding.

As marketers, we still emphasize the importance of creating brand positioning and strategy. But we are not just skilled promoters of products. We are also the patients’ best advocates, the nonprofit groups’ strongest supporter, a close collaborator with physicians, a communicator with specialty pharmacies and the facilitator with managed care groups. We wear many hats and the communities we serve rely on us. It’s a responsibility that we take seriously.

The multiple hats we wear are the result of the unique market we work in. The drugs are complex and expensive, the patient populations are small and the physician market is smaller still—and specialized. Specialty pharma budgets pale in comparison to blockbusters, and our sales forces are tiny. With such limitations, specialty brand marketers tend to execute more “creative solutions” to achieve their marketing objectives.

Working with Patient Communities and Specialists

For example, finding data about our patient targets is not as easy as purchasing a list from a third-party mailing house. We learn about patient needs by meeting with their physicians, attending community forums or presenting at community events. Some of the most active patients in the communities are also the same individuals who band together to form advocacy groups. Our insights on patient behavior could never be duplicated in a typical market research study.

Another difference worth sharing is the relationship specialty pharma companies have with physician specialists. In primary care, sales reps may have difficulty spending one minute with their physicians. In the specialty market, our interaction with specialists tends to be longer and more engaging. Specialists are more likely to collaborate closely with specialty pharma companies to further study the disease state and find information that will offer their patients new hope. Many are in academia and are driven to find a treatment, diagnostic or approach that would help their patients.

The Specialty Rep as Consultant

Because our specialists are constantly looking for clinical information, the specialty reps usually have a strong clinical or scientific background. They can’t offer product samples because of the cost of drugs, or their delivery is difficult and expensive. Instead, the specialty sales reps take on a more consultative role, engaging in clinical-based discussions about clinical studies, end points, safety and results.

These sales reps also are solely responsible for a set geography, and this means developing a deeper understanding of their territory and learning to prioritize. A significant amount of time is spent analyzing territory details and identifying opportunities.

Distribution and Reimbursement Models

The distribution of specialty drugs requires a different approach from conventional therapies in which wholesalers stock the products, physicians prescribe and patients purchase the drugs at the pharmacy—
if they choose to fill the prescription. Specialty products follow a different distribution model in which specialists will purchase the products directly from a specialty pharmacy or distributor. They then administer them to patients in their office or clinic and subsequently bill the respective payer. Specialty marketers will need to be versed in these different distribution and reimbursement models.

Since many specialty drugs cost tens of thousands of dollars, marketers also work closely with managed care access teams and national accounts, sometimes even presenting with them to validate the value of the products to managed care groups. Previously, prices for specialty drugs received little attention from payers. The market was much smaller and the type of drugs available was limited. However, payers are now scrutinizing pricing more carefully. When medicines can cost payers upwards of $150,000 a year, marketers will need to carefully collaborate with managed care teams to ensure the products patients need are available to them.

In the next five years the number of specialty pharma companies will double and the need to provide marketing services to targeted populations and specialists will be at a critical point. There will be a need for marketers that specialize in this niche. In addition to executing brand strategies for products, specialty marketers must also become the patient’s strongest advocate, the specialist’s closest collaborator and the managed care group’s essential partner. While on the surface the multiple roles we play in specialty pharma may seem overwhelming, they are also very rewarding.

  • Stephen Houlihan

    Stephen Houlihan has more than 15 years of commercial experience marketing specialty pharmaceuticals in a variety of disease states. He currently works in the biosimilar marketing division of Apotex Corp. in Fort Lauderdale, Fl.


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