Pharma sales reps still visiting doctors in the pandemic

One might expect that visits from pharmaceutical sales reps would cease during the Covid-19 pandemic, given that hospitals and clinics have largely shut down in-person non-emergency services. But as it turns out, sales rep visits haven’t stopped–they’ve just moved online.

According to a poll conducted last month by health care consultancy company ZoomRx, about 80% of physicians said they would like some degree of contact with pharmaceutical sales reps during the pandemic. Fourteen percent of doctors said they wanted more outreach from pharma compared to before the pandemic began. Why this need for sales rep visits in this health emergency?

Doctors may want to know more about whether certain drugs are safe to take for patients that have Covid-19. Or they might be trying to secure their supply of free samples for low-income patients. But there could be another, more worrisome reason behind this trend: camaraderie. A large part of the job of sales reps is to become friendly with doctors, to learn as much as possible about them and gain their trust, so eventually their “friendship” is repaid with more prescriptions.

Aaron Kesselheim, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, speculated that pharma reps’ “ability to influence physicians will diminish because of the much more impersonal nature of virtual interactions,” in The Wall Street Journal. However, in this time of uncertainty and loneliness, some doctors’ relationships with pharma reps could actually become stronger. One doctor responded in the Zoom Rx poll, “During the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s actually been nice to have appointments to talk to the representatives over my lunch hour.”

Another reason why doctors may still want to see pharma reps is because it can lead to more business opportunities. Doctors may be invited to give travel, give talks, and be a “thought leader” for the company, which is quite lucrative. However, these relationships are often problematic, especially for doctors that hold leadership positions in professional medical organizations.

According to a recent study in The BMJ, 235 out of 328 leaders of 10 professional medical organizations (72%) had financial ties to industry in the years 2017-2019. These were not just small payments either; the median payment amount was $31,805. Payments to leaders of the American Society of Clinical Oncology were the largest, with a median leader payment of $518,000, while leaders of the American Psychiatric Association got a median payment of $212.

A large body of research shows that receiving money from pharma reps impacts doctors’ prescribing habits. As pharmaceutical companies look at the pandemic as a potential opportunity to increase their contact with doctors, policymakers should work toward reducing the prevalence of these relationships.