EXTON, PA — Ten months after the doors closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a survey of 266 US specialty physicians conducted by Exton-based Spherix Global Insights in mid-January 2021 clearly demonstrates a long road to recovery ahead. As with the many uncertainties brought on by the pandemic comes the uncertainty of job security, and the pharmaceutical sales representative is in the hot seat.
As a precursor to what is likely to be seen in other pharmaceutical companies, Amgen noted the pandemic has led to “lasting changes” in the way they do business, according to CEO Robert Bradway during the Q4 2020 earnings call.1 Amgen confirmed during the call that it is shrinking its workforce, “primarily in the U.S. sales force,” as it pivots to upcoming drug launches and adopts pandemic-time digital marketing tools for the long run.2
Prior to COVID-19, most surveyed specialists indicated they met with pharmaceutical sales representatives on a fairly regular basis. According to the 14th wave of Spherix’s Special Topix™ series, which kicked off in March 2020, among the respondents who had routine engagement with sales representatives prior to COVID-19, 20% now have a closed-door policy, and 45% more report that interaction (including in-person and virtual) is substantially lower than it was pre-pandemic.
Only about one-third of specialists reported a face-to-face visit with a representative in the prior week; a similar percent reported virtual engagement with industry representatives. Among those with any contact, about 60% of the interactions were done virtually, a figure that has been consistent over the past several months. “It’s not good optics right now to meet with representatives,” claims one nephrologist, while a rheumatologist states, “More risk of exposure; same info can be conveyed via telephone or email.” According to a surveyed neurologist, “They don’t have much to offer for new information and could spread COVID.”
Companies launching brands during the pandemic, such as BMS’ Zeposia and Novartis’ Kesimpta for MS, Aurinia Pharmaceutical’s Lupkynis and GSK’s Benlysta for lupus nephritis, and Lundbeck’s Vyepti for migraine prevention, face particular challenges. Indeed, 29% of the specialists agree that, at the present time, they are less willing to prescribe newly launched products.
Furthermore, as companies shift focus to provide more digital promotion, it is concerning that only about one-in-four specialists say they are likely to engage in a virtual program, even if new data is being presented. Collectively, the survey cohort received invitations to nearly 800 virtual speaker programs in the past month – they attended just 23%. When it comes to the leading topic in a virtual detail, there is high variability across specialties; in neurology, much of the focus is on newly-launched agents while in gastroenterology, the virtual calls are more likely to be “check-ins.”
Some companies are stepping up. AbbVie, which currently markets Humira, Rinvoq, and Skyrizi, has consistently been rated the most supportive company by rheumatologists, dermatologists, and gastroenterologists. In the renal space, AstraZeneca, who currently markets Lokelma and is anticipating a high-profile launch of its novel HIF-PH inhibitor, roxadustat, outpaces other companies in the renal space. In neurology, Biogen leads among MS companies, while Biohaven is becoming a standout among migraine companies. Their secret is no secret: consistent contact, willingness to help (particularly with issues related to product access), and being available if requested.
To what extent the traditional pharma-physician relationship can be revived post-pandemic will depend on what the world looks like. As of mid-January, 88% of surveyed specialists had received at least one dose of the vaccine. Most specialists (76%) are looking forward to the return of in-person conferences (which the majority anticipate resuming in Spring 2022). One certainty is that, regardless of the future of in-person promotional efforts, pharma will need to dedicate more resources to alternative (digital) promotion and find ways to make engagement compelling.
- Q4 2020 Amgen Earnings Conference Call Presentation. Amgen. February 2, 2021. https://investors.amgen.com/static-files/f4ddd625-93ef-4f9c-bc28-db0e42026709
- Amgen’s Sales Team Faces Layoffs, Hundreds of Jobs Cut at Headquarters. PharmaLive. February 4, 2021. https://www.pharmalive.com/amgens-sales-team-faces-layoffs-hundreds-of-jobs-cut-at-headquarters/
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