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Survey shows doctors' online preferences

Doctors prefer to receive information from pharma companies from online channels rather than the traditional sales represenative, according to a survey by OnMedica
Doctors prefer to receive information from pharma companies from online channels rather than the traditional sales represenative, according to a survey by OnMedica.

A poll of over 500 doctors has revealed that 79 per cent of them prefer to receive product information electronically, without the involvement of a sales rep. Only 15 per cent of doctors prefer to receive information from sales reps, and 6 per cent prefer journal advertising.

The study also highlighted that 27 per cent of doctors trust the information pharma companies put on their websites about their own products.

The findings echo sentiments expressed in a recent panel discussion run by Millward Brown in London on May 22, 2008.

The discussion established that social networking, online word of mouth (WoM) and other digital marketing methods offer valuable opportunities for pharma to access GPs and other clinicians, but they are currently undervalued and not being fully exploited.

Although pharma has not yet embraced fully the so-called digital revolution, the NHS and patients themselves seem to be using the technology more and more.

"It is definitely time to catch up if the NHS is already there," noted Donal O'Donoghue, medical director of Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust.

"Nowadays those [doctors] who are qualifying use electronic documents, not pieces of paper, and GPs are working in a paperless environment. I am always on broadband, courtesy of, referrals are emailed, appointments are booked online and I 'Google' illnesses," explains Mike Lane, a GP and member of the executive committee of the largest PCT in London, who also teaches medical students.

"If I am sent any paper marketing materials, they go straight in the bin, but if a rep turns up, I will listen - I see six or seven reps a month," Lane continued.

However, not all GPs are as open to rep visits, and pharma has been using e-detailing as an alternative means to reach them.

Greater access
According to both Lane and O'Donoghue, digital marketing could play a more powerful role in getting pharma companies access to NHS decision-makers.

"There would be information from more sources, which in theory, could cancel any bias out - we would have more faith in a bigger aggregation of data," said O'Donoghue.

Lane points out that if pharma provided a means by which GPs could interact with the industry more, it would get better results. 

"No [pharma company] asks GPs what we would like out of the next trial - for example, what endpoints would convince us? Would we like severe patients tested in the trial, or medium? If pharma companies did this, I would make time for them. Some data in trials is not even relevant - drugs are compared to other drugs that we would not prescribe in that instance," explains Lane.

"The NHS is modernising at a pace you would not believe," said O'Donoghue. "We recently had to make a £50m decision and so the chairman suggested we ask the patients, which we did," he continued.

Fergus Hampton, managing director of Millward Brown Precis, explained that with an increasing number of negative reports about prescription drugs appearing online, pharma cannot hide behind the excuse that it doesn't know about it for much longer.

With the advent of Champix support groups on eBay and websites such as, pharma needs to get on board with social networking, blogs and digital interaction.

Millward Brown Precis has set up the Pharma Research Framework, which monitors negative reports of adverse events online, and is carrying out a trial with a pharma company to use findings from online support groups within safety protocols.

With the advent of more and more patient websites, pharma needs to realise the WoM value that blogs and online patient support groups bring.

"How we interact is changing ñ WoM adds brand value to products," explained Paul Keirnan, director of healthcare at GCI.

Keirnan agreed with Lane that reps are not going to die out because people still like to see people ñ however he notes that pharma could get more use out of websites if used in conjunction with  reps.

More than e-detailing
Pharma's main focus still seems to be on e-detailing, but the panel's unanimous conclusion was that there is more to digital marketing available. One issue that still seems to be a sticking point in pharma's digital revolution is confusion over what regulations will permit and what they won't.

"There was a concept for Novartis of a social group and virtual community online that would get people talking to each other, however, it never got past regulatory approval," stated Keirnan.

A member of the invited audience revealed that, according to the ABPI Code of Practice, if a company initiates a website, they are legally responsible for all content ñ even third party, and therefore pharma is shying away from such initiatives.

It was suggested that one way to get around the regulatory confusion is to sponsor a website, but not be involved in the content in any way.

Millward Brown also presented some preliminary research at the discussion. According to this research, there has been a 72 per cent growth in social networking by GPs, and 52 per cent of GPs turn to reps for advice, compared to 43 per cent who turn to medical websites. Of those GPs, 5 per cent trust what a rep says, compared to 26 per cent who trust medical websites.

The difficulty of accessing GPs is a common problem for pharma - GPs' time is limited. However, according to the research, 97 per cent of GPs use the internet at least once a day and 51 per cent of GPs' time spent online is work-related.

4th June 2008


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