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The future of the pharmaceutical sales rep

Drug-maker GlaxoSmithKline is going to stop paying doctors worldwide for speaking engagements. And it'll stop setting targets for its drug reps.

'Detail men' are sales reps who sell doctors on new drugs. They became a fixture in the mid-20th century, when federal laws first started requiring prescriptions for some drugs.

“You have the creation of the prescription-only drug at exactly the time the pharmaceutical industry is transforming into innovative patent-protected medicines,” says Jeremy Greene, a medical historian at Johns Hopkins University.

Pharmaceutical companies realized doctor’s prescription pads were the funnels to drug sales.

"And all of this,'' Greene says, "puts an increased emphasis on not just having salesman, but having a trained detail man -- and they were almost all men in the mid-20th century -- have a trained detail man that you could put into the doctor’s office."

Greene says initially these detail men were nervous about teaching doctors how to do their job. 

That changed.

Drug reps, men and women, became fixtures at doctors’ offices. You know, the often attractive folks, waiting purposefully in a room of sick people.

These days, the job is changing again. Doctors aren’t the funnels to drug sales they once were.

"Physician autonomy over prescribing has been decreasing over time," says Ernst Berndt, a health economics professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Benefit managers make more of the calls about what drugs you’ll get. Now, pharmceutical companies have to make their case to health plans, not just doctors.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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