Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Topic12: Here We Go Again – Oncology Sales Reps and MSLs

Did you see the headlines off this new survey from ZS Associates about sales rep access to oncologists?  The takeaway is that oncologists heavily restrict sales staff access.  Only 39% of oncologists were accessible (by ZS’ definition) to sales staff while the average for other all physicians is closer to 65%.  Take a look at the article here.

For those of us in the oncology space this is not really breaking news but the quantification brings it into focus.   And the article goes on to mention different sales approaches to help overcome this limitation, implying at one point that pharma might re-start the sales arms race and gain access through sheer force of numbers. (I am highly skeptical of this)   We all know when this type of information comes out the next line of reasoning for improving access to oncologists always seems to involve MSLs.

MSLs have access to oncologists, goes the reasoning, and we should use them to “supplement” the limited access of our sales folk.  There was a blog post on this subject in PharmaExec’s blog here that seems to make this case.  In it, the poster cites a study from Industry Standard Research and talks about how MSLs are “…less promotional…” than sales reps and thus more credible.

As MA professionals, we need to nip these arguments in the bud.  While I personally have no issue with taking money that used to go to sales reps and putting it toward MSLs, the justification for doing so cannot be to use MSLs as “scientific sales” or “sales-lite.”  The hard truth is that oncologists are not interested in being marketed to by drug makers.  They are sophisticated physicians with robust knowledge of the scientific state of their therapeutic area, and they don’t need reps to help them make decisions.  What they are interested in is learning and sharing with peers.  And, if we can put MSLs in place that can support that learning and sharing, they will be appreciated and welcome.  But, the minute we try to give MSLs any level of marketing duties, we will simultaneously lose our physician credibility and place the entire MA function in compliance risk.

Instead of seeing the information from ZS as an excuse for pulling MA into marketing, it should be seen as a clarion call for a shift in focus from a customer relationship to an educational and scientific partnership.

MA can have an impact on treatment decisions but not through marketing.  MA’s impact will come from partnering with physicians to ensure they have the scientific facts and support that they need to make informed decisions using their best judgment.


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  1. I could not agree with your point of view more. MSLs must remain a non-promotional scientifically focused team based in the Medical organization engaging in compliant scientific exchange. While you call out the restricted access for oncologists, the level of restirction is also noted as fairly high for cardiologists and PCPs. I don't find MSLs to have anywhere this level of access restriction.

  2. [...] MSLs, including posts about MSLs driving value, posts about MSL team leadership and posts about MSLs vs. sales.  However, I have not discussed MSL organization structure and [...]


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