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The fast track

Increasingly, doctors are turning to online resources to improve their clinical practice and earn points for their continuing professional development (CPD) programmes

RunnersSince joining in mid-2010, I have spent time travelling across Europe talking to senior pharmaceutical marketers and the principals of other online doctor communities. These conversations make it clear that our marketplace is changing rapidly, albeit with marked differences between countries. Marketers are typically asking me: How do we achieve increased market share for our brands with ever tightening budgets and a reduced salesforce? While I don't have all of the answers, I have been explaining the latest digital innovations and the possibilities of online targeting and engagement with doctors simultaneously across multiple countries.

Matt Stanton, founding director of 7.4 Marketing, which delivers strategic marketing consultancy and communications solutions to some of the world's largest pharmaceutical firms, confirms the challenge: "Increasingly, doctors are limiting pharma rep access, resulting in the need for innovative approaches to reach them and to build relationships with their brands."

We are seeing that doctors, previously the target of reams of offline material and numerous meeting requests, will increasingly 'self-service' their information needs, and industry, if it wants to maintain share-of-voice, now has to provide access to resources in new engaging ways.

Earning the 'right' to engage with doctors
While many brands are successfully influencing consumers with direct promotional activity, engaging with doctors online is an area in which pharma has been slow to show much progress. Yet, with a significant increase in doctors using the internet for work and pleasure, the opportunity presented by the channel is, to most minds, huge.

David McCormick, a former rep, sales trainer and digital brand manager for a large pharmaceutical company said: "You first need to earn the 'right' to market to your target audience, especially in an online environment. Having that right means having the ability to have a meaningful conversation with them."

He added: "Pharma doesn't automatically have that right and, as a result, in this fast-paced digital world, doctors and other key groups will simply fast-forward through the messages you're trying to bombard them with. For instance, in terms of marketing to doctors, it isn't anymore a given that an advert in Pulse or GP is going to grab the requisite attention."

But what do doctors really want?
In recent research among UK GPs, drilled down to determine the usefulness of online resources, and it came as little surprise that those providing hard facts that supported doctors' main areas of concern came out top.

Dr Tim Ringrose, medical director of, said: "Our UK network has a membership comprising 90 per cent of all practising doctors and the latest figures suggest that, each day, just under a quarter of all UK doctors use the network. Of those, more than three-quarters (79 per cent) cite accredited continuing medical education (CME) modules as useful."

All the statistics highlight a significant trend among doctors who, it would appear, are increasingly turning to online resources to improve their clinical practice and achieve continuing professional development (CPD) points. The extent of doctors' fairly recent conversion to online is illustrated by usage totals for's CME modular programme, which, since launch six years ago, has delivered 1.6 million hours of accredited learning and seen over 830,000 individual modules completed.

How do we engage better?
While these statistics are encouraging, eagerness to get on the digital bandwagon can result in an approach that confuses 'engagement' with 'access'. The e-shot and corporate website often fall into this trap. And far from incentivising doctors to delve deeper, the impact of the e-shot, if executed poorly – as blanket communication – can be brutal and disengage doctors from the outset. asked 1,000 GPs what drives engagement and they answered 'relevance' and 'benefit'. So all digital communications must meet specific wants and needs, which requires first-hand knowledge of doctor opinion.

A question of trust?
However, the pharmaceutical industry has a major hurdle to negotiate. Our member research has also shown it to be lacking in credibility, with a nominal three per cent of doctors naming it as a trusted source of information – a sentiment that is further reflected in the low frequency of visits by these doctors to pharmaceutical websites.

Dr Ringrose continues: "Over four out of five (82 per cent) claim to visit online pharma resources less than once a month and just under half (42 per cent) never. While doctors do recognise the need for such information, their preferred channels are trusted independent online sources (58 per cent)."

Proving the case
In early 2010, one pharmaceutical company took the decision, on one of its somewhat neglected lifecycle products, to test the effectiveness of an independent online channel against a traditional contract sales force.

The brand's lifecycle product manager was convinced that while digital might reach more doctors, their understanding of key messages and, most importantly, their intention to prescribe, could only be influenced as a result of face-to-face engagement with a knowledgeable and compelling representative.

After rewriting the product manuals and going through the compliance process, it took a month to train a team of 50 representatives. The team received campaign-specific manuals and ongoing guidance and support to ensure focus on objectives. To give the 'relaunch' the greatest chance of success, the company invested a large amount of extra money and management time into the contract sales force.

Simultaneously, developed a rolling campaign of eDetails that presented both key clinical data and product messages. The eDetails were promoted via the network's weekly clinical bulletin and other site promotion with text that clearly explained the therapy area. This approach saw the campaign being made available to over 20,000 doctors who then made the choice whether to click through to engage with further information.

The rolling programme enabled the outcome of each eDetail to drive the focus of the next, allowing the company to mould its approach actively to affect and further GP awareness, attitudes and behaviour towards the product.

On all key objectives of the campaign, digital proved to be the most successful, specifically by engaging more interactively to understand fully the GP's current and future prescribing intentions. Furthermore, it was effective in reinforcing the clinical benefits of the product and its advantages for particular patient groups. Headline results revealed that 86 per cent of doctors viewing an eDetail intend to increase their prescribing of the product. This compares to 62 per cent of those having received visits from sales representatives.

Navigating the European landscape
McCormick concludes that, far from being laggards, pharma is preoccupied with the huge challenge of determining how and what to communicate to a huge number of stakeholders. He says: "This industry is difficult to navigate and regulation is a major consideration. You have to consider the financial and political environment and how sophisticated healthcare is in a particular country. For example, in Greece and Bulgaria, there is still not much central control, much like the UK 20 years ago."

Yet, with more global healthcare companies recognising the value of online communication, there will no doubt be a shift towards the channel being seen increasingly as mainstream and an integral part of a successful marketing programme.

The Author
Gareth Thomas is international development director at
He can be contacted on +44 (0)1235 828400 or at has partnerships with similar doctor communities across Europe

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14th March 2011


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