Doctors Like Web for Drug Info, Still Want Perks

Doctors increasingly turn to the Web for drug information, giving the pharmaceutical industry a prime marketing opportunity, yet physicians still want to continue the offline practice of receiving lavish perks for paying attention.

Jupiter Research found that 58 percent of Web-savvy doctors have participated in online pharmaceutical promotion programs, known as e-detailing, in which a drug is explained through a presentation and samples are offered. What’s more, these doctors are prime targets for pharmaceutical companies, seeing an average of 157 patients a week. Additionally, about three quarters of them write more than 200 prescriptions per week.

Still, Jupiter found little evidence that the Internet will replace the traditional face-to-face meetings with drug company sales representatives that still dominate the business. Nine out of ten doctors participating in e-detailing still visit with sales reps for up to two hours a week, despite their preference for online programs.

“Trying to get attention from physicians is getting very, very difficult,” said Monique Levy, a Jupiter Research analyst. “Instead of squeezing in a minute, they can invite them to an online product presentation, talk about the drug and what it’s being used for.”

According to Manhattan Research, 279,000 physicians will participate in an e-detailing session this year, representing nearly half of all practicing doctors. Likewise, Jupiter found that 85 percent of doctors using online promotions cited “adequate compensation” as the biggest factor holding them back from using online promotional opportunities more often.

Most online promotions offer doctors only small benefits, such as a $100 “honoraria” gift certificate to Amazon, ostensibly for medical books. Under American Medical Association guidelines, doctors can accept non-cash gifts worth up to $100, so long as they are medically relevant.

Levy said this “gray area” would likely come under pressure, as pharmaceutical companies faced further restrictions on these practices in the wake of crackdowns on shady corporate practices.

“These sort of kickbacks have been a big benefit,” she said. “It’s become very clear that this kind of gift giving is going to be restricted.”

Last October, the Department of Health and Human Services warned pharmaceutical companies that they could not offer doctors “tangible rewards” for prescribing or switching drugs. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry trade group, also tightened its guidelines for sales reps last year.

All guidelines and standards remain voluntary, but Levy said the fear of litigation over the marketing practices could spur action.

“The last thing pharma wants is to have a big case,” she said. “Some pharmas will be very conservative with this kind of marketing.”

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