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The New Ethics in Pharmaceutical Sales

The New Ethics in Pharmaceutical Sales

Jennifer LeClaire, Monster

When it comes to pharmaceutical sales ethics, the pendulum has swung between very lax and very strict over the years.

With the latest ethics and compliance programs implemented by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and the Office of Inspector General, pharmaceutical sales representatives are once again working in a stricter ethical environment.

Or are they? There’s been plenty of publicity about how sales reps are toeing the ethical line with respect to accessing physicians and promoting pharmaceuticals, but attorneys claim some companies are evading the guidelines with an eye to securing profits.

Renewed Focus on Relationship Building

Without being able to offer prime seats to a baseball game or some other gift or perk, getting a physician’s ear can be difficult, says Eric Bolesh, senior analyst at Cutting Edge Information, a pharmaceutical research firm in Durham, North Carolina.

For that reason, industry consultants report pharmaceutical sales reps are putting new emphasis on relationship building. One way in which some sales reps are working to create and strengthen ties with doctors is by positioning themselves as educational resources on narrowly defined therapeutic areas and complicated diseases.

“One sales force might focus solely on respiratory problems,” Bolesh says. “Having a firm grasp of the scientific medical material and being able to tell [doctors] something they don’t know is becoming important. When [they start] to recognize you as someone who really is a medical resource, they are going to be a lot friendlier.”

The Letter of the Law

Alcon Laboratories, an ophthalmic drug maker in Fort Worth, is prescribing a sales strategy that it says is in line with the current ethics code. The company used to invite physicians to attend lectures, which were followed by some special event such as a ball game or golf outing, according to Carol Duke, the company’s professional education director.

“Our dinner meetings now feature a modest meal and a lecture by a guest speaker,” Duke says. “We try to tie our meetings in with local societies so that the program is governed by those affiliates and not by our company or our sales reps.”

Alcon is driving the majority of its efforts toward continuing medical education (CME) programs and away from promotional programs that provide entertainment. Duke says that in the past, the company spent about 45 percent of its educational budget on CME activities and the remainder on promotional activities. Today, 70 percent of the budget is spent on CME, she reports.