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Drug industry "Deep Throat"

Posted Jun 18 2009 11:23am
A Heart Scan Blog reader brought the following letter from a former sales representative for the drug industry to congress.

Interesting excerpts:

As a former drug representative for Eli Lilly, I spent 20 months increasing the market share of my company’s drugs. I was recruited fresh from college with an eager desire to employ my degree in molecular biology and biochemistry. Shortly after my hiring, it became clearly apparent that a drug sale had much more to do with establishing personal relationships than it did with understanding the latest science. However, any doubts I held regarding the effectiveness of such methods were dispelled by the results of my persuasiveness and the financial rewards I received for my efforts. The latter also helped me rationalize the many ethically dubious situations I routinely encountered in my work. Upon my departure from the industry, I began working for the public’s health. Seven years later, as a result of my experiences and education I am more convinced than ever that the goals of the pharmaceutical industry often stand in direct conflict with the practice of ethical and responsible medicine. Nothing in my recent research causes me to believe that my experiences were anything but typical of the training and practice of the majority of drug reps plying their trade today.


“There’s a big bucket of money sitting in every [doctor’s] office.” – Michael Zubillaga, Astra Zeneca Regional Sales Director, Oncology


The majority of drug reps entering the work force today are young and attractive. The ranks of reps are replete with sexual icons: former cheerleaders, ex-military, models, athletes. Of course, as a sales job, the reps must be eloquent and convincing. Depending on the population, certain ethnicities are preferred either to make the rep distinct among other reps or to provide them with a cultural advantage in connecting with their clients. Noticeably lacking among most new reps is any significant scientific understanding. My personal case illustrates this point rather vividly: In my training class for Eli Lilly's elite neuroscience division, selling two products that constituted over 50% of the company's profits at the time, none of my 21 classmates nor our two trainers had any college level scientific education. In fact, that first day of training, I taught my class and my instructors the very basic but crucial process by which two nerve cells communicate with one another. It is very likely that the majority of my class couldn't explain the difference between a neuron and a neutron prior to sales school. While it's certainly a bonus to have a scientifically educated representative, it is far from a primary recruitment criterion. Youth is a much higher criterion for the sales position.

Sales representative trainers are almost always veteran sales representatives and consequently, much of the training they offer is implicit in the anecdotes they give. This informal training parallels the standard training offered by the industry and in many ways compliments it. It is tacitly accepted by management and perceived as the "real" training by many veteran sale representatives. Among the more dubious "unofficial" lessons a new rep learns are: how to manipulate an expense report to exceed the spending limit for important clients, how to use free samples to leverage sales, how to use friendship to foster an implied "quid pro quo" relationship, the importance of sexual tension, and how to maneuver yourself to becoming a necessity to an office or clinic.

The most troubling aspect of pharmaceutical sales is systematic befriending of our clients. In addition to the psychological profiling mentioned above, drug reps are taught to constantly be on the lookout for personal effects that will help us connect to our doctors. When entering an office for the first time, we nonchalantly survey it for clues to ingratiate ourselves with our client. Similarly, conversations are intentionally steered into the realm of personal details such as religion, family, or hobbies to acquire similar information. As a matter of training, we collect this data subtly. In the course of a conversation with clients, we may glean facts about their prescribing preferences, the dates of their children’s birthdays, where they were born, or what music they enjoy. Training encourages us to commit these details to memory just long enough to return to our cars and instantly type up a “call report” listing the details of our conversation. On a daily basis, we connect our computers to a central database that uploads the information we’ve acquired, allowing us to share it with our partner drug reps and company marketers. Subsequently, drug reps interweave pieces of conversation specifically tailored to appeal to their client drawn from personal information that wasn’t necessarily shared with them. For example, Dr. Jones will be nothing but grateful when I supply him with a cake celebrating his children’s birthday when, in fact, he told my partner (and not me) the birthdates several months prior in a personal conversation.


The writer's comments ring true: The relentless attention-grab of sales representatives, using clever tactics that include access to detailed records of physician prescribing habits, big smiles and eye-winking, are detailed perfectly.

There's nothing wrong with a business doing its job by marketing its products and services. What is so wrong about this picture is that one side is so well-equipped, heavily funded, with access to extraordinary resources that the other side (physicians) don't have. And the physicians aren't the victims--YOU are.

A middle-aged, receding hairline physician, faced with a 28-year old attractive woman asking all manner of ingratiating questions but knowing full well what she is doing, having strategized for weeks on how to manipulate the behavior of her "mark," is helpless.

Like the mortgage-backed security crisis, we've reached another phenomenon of crisis proportions. Direct-to-consumer drug advertising, drugs for non-conditions and well people, pinpoint marketing of drugs to physicians--it's all gone too far.

Personally, drug representatives are not welcome in my office. This generally prompts puzzled, followed by angry, looks from the representatives, often traveling with a district supervisor hoping to help polish their pitch. If patients didn't request free samples, the reps would not step foot in the office.
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