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Covid Crushed In-Person Pharma Sales. Tech is Pitching Itself as a Solution

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November 5, 2021

This article was originally published on STAT+ on Feb. 18, 2021 by Mario Aguilar

The pandemic grounded tens of thousands of pharmaceutical reps who usually roam the country urging doctors to prescribe certain drugs — a shift that has opened the door for tech companies, who are pitching digital platforms on the promise that oceans of data can make pharma marketing better. After in-person sales activity plummeted last March, numbers from consulting firm ZS Associates show that it’s bounced back somewhat in digital form.

Today, activity sits at about 35% of pre-Covid levels. Of this activity, 60% is happening virtually — compared to less than 2% of activity before the pandemic. “In Covid, they kind of had to face up to this reality,” Pratap Khedkar of ZS Associates told STAT. The companies turned to email and Zoom, realizing, as Khedkar put it, that “this is the only way to engage now, I can’t just send in the rep who will watch for the doctor in the hallway.”

The recent decline of in-person visits and adoption of digital outreach caps a trend that has been emerging for years. Even before the pandemic, a growing number of practices and hospitals were limiting access to reps for several reasons, including an increasing wariness of improper influence over prescribing, scrutiny over the role that marketing played in the opioid crisis, concern over the disclosures required under the 2010 Sunshine Act, and worry that reps were using up valuable time.

In this changing landscape, data crunching firms like ODAIA and Komodo Health are positioning their tools as a way to help companies better target their sales efforts, which could lead to a costs savings off the billions spent pitching doctors every year.

“I think the greatest way that [we] can create value is that you don’t waste people people’s time with things that don’t matter, that aren’t important, and aren’t helpful,” ODAIA board member and former AstraZeneca Canada CEO Michael Cloutier told STAT".

Cloutier started his career as a sales rep almost 40 years ago when sales and marketing efforts amounted to “the old spaghetti on the wall.”

Over the last several decades, data has become a critical piece of pharmaceutical sales from the planning at the very top down to the reps who, equipped with detailed information about all the doctors in their assigned geographic turf, burn a significant amount of time strategizing who to target with a particular product. ODAIA, a newcomer that has inked deals with Cloutier’s former company as well as Janssen, claims its “Maptual” intelligence platform can do much of this analysis using AI and deliver automated insights and sales guidance that update in real-time.

“The algorithm looks at everything,” said CEO Philip Poulidis. ”It looks at prescribing patterns. It looks at demographic information in particular areas. It looks at obviously the propensity of the physician to switch brands, to try new therapeutics, to perhaps be the first within their geographic area to prescribe a new drug.”

The company piloted its product with one client in 2019, but it wasn’t until the pandemic’s lasting impacts on sales became clear in mid-2020 that ODAIA started to get traction.

“We were starting to get calls back saying, ‘OK, we’re ready to adopt what you’ve got because we’re in the blind right now,’” said Poulidis.

Komodo Health, a more established player, has its own intelligence platform it calls the Healthcare Map and also offers several tools that help sales teams better target doctors using signals found in data from insurance companies, among other sources.

The company’s vice president of life sciences Vivian DeWoskin said that in Covid there’s been a push toward marketing tactics that don’t require an in-person rep, while making sure doctors aren’t “bombarded with a billion emails that they don’t engage with and that they don’t find useful.”

To walk that line, Komodo uses deep data and sophisticated triggers to facilitate outreach at different stages in medical care. In one example of using an email blast, DeWoskin said, “we’ve been working with teams to, say, take a very early potential clinical signal of a patient getting diagnosed. Maybe a test was ordered. You don’t even know the results of the diagnosis yet. ... That might be that might translate to an automated email campaign about disease awareness or the mechanism of action — some kind of more medically minded education.”

In a different realm of service providers, marketing agency Greater Than One has turned outreach completely on its head with an online “request-a-rep” system, which allows doctors who want to learn about the company’s drugs to reach out. The agency has scored clients including Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, whose “Alnylam Connect” tool is advertised on provider portals like WebMD. After filling out the form, the system automatically identifies the representative assigned to the doctor in the company’s database.

Greater Than One’s chief technology officer Ken Winell said the system dramatically improves the quality of interactions. “A rep, ad hoc, trying to make an appointment and drive by a [doctor’s] office was getting five minutes of time at the most,” he said. “And through a virtual request-a-rep, they’re seeing 30-minute engagements — at least 30 minutes. So there’s a huge uptick there.” Direct interaction with doctors is only one piece of a sprawling sales and marketing machine that includes funding research, conferences, and direct-to-consumer advertising. Critics contend that among other downsides, these activities can drive up drug prices by steering patient demand away from cheaper generics.

Most of the people trying to streamline these efforts, however, argue that saving money on sales is a good thing for patients and drug development because it leaves more resources available for research and tracking outcomes.

“If we were able to create a process that helps us be better at that in terms of efficiencies, I believe that we will be able to then reallocate resources to doing things ... around enhancing our capabilities in research and development,” said ODAIA’s Cloutier. “Creating shareholder value is important so that people keep investing in the industry, so that we do continue to create innovative options.”

Winell suggests that digital efficiency will cause companies to ask, “‘Is there a way for us to reduce our cost and operating expenses for running field forces?’”“[I’m] not saying pharma reps are going to go away,” he said, “but I think that what’s going to happen is they’ll be optimized.”

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