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Interactive sampling

Published on 04/04/05 at 11:40am

The internet has changed the way many of us live our lives, from grocery shopping to booking holidays, but can it revolutionise the way we receive medication? A new web-based vehicle, eSampling (electronic sampling), is starting to gain devotees, especially in the US, but also in Europe and the UK.

Whether eSampling becomes the preferred way for physicians to order drug samples remains to be seen, according to a new report by independent market analyst Datamonitor.

According to Datamonitor's eHealth analyst Kimberly O'Malley eSampling allows pharma companies to cost-effectively reach physicians routinely undersold to by sales representatives.

"eSampling also provides an opportunity for pharma companies to improve the quality of the services provided to prescribers with who brand loyalty has already been developed," she adds.

Sampling warehouses seeking to develop more efficient and cost-effective sample distribution strategies initiated electronic sampling, but were unsuccessful because start-up costs were considerable.

"At the same time, the sample coverage provided by these eSampling pioneers was inherently restricted as physicians using the service were only gaining access to one sample warehouse," O'Malley says.

For early eSampling initiatives to become cost-effective, they needed to cover a broad range of physicians without disrupting existing sales and distribution channels. This required an independent link between a broad range of already established warehouses and a wide variety of physicians. Contemporary electronic sampling vendors provide a link between existing points-of-distribution and high traffic physician websites - these eSampling platforms have the competitive advantage in the current market.

There are three ways in which eSampling can be used as a supplement to traditional sales representative-based methods of drug sampling. In the first instance, the physician orders samples online, usually through a third party web portal. These samples are then delivered by mail to the physician's practice for distribution to applicable patients. In the second method of sample distribution, the physician prints out a single sample voucher from the internet, rather than order a specific number of samples.

"The voucher can then be given to a patient at the time of the office visit," O'Malley says. "This voucher, accompanied by a physician's prescription, may then be redeemed for the particular medication at the patient's local pharmacy. The second and third methods are similar as both require that a sample voucher, accompanied by a prescription, be presented to a pharmacist.

"The key difference in this third approach, however, is that the patient downloads the voucher from the internet and presents it to the doctor for approval. More so than the other methods of eSampling, this third approach allows patient requests to potentially influence physician prescribing behaviour. However, because direct-to-consumer advertising is not legally permitted in any European Union member country, this approach is not feasible in all pharmaceutical markets."

The most popular current means of receiving samples electronically among physicians is through a third party web portal. Physicians using this type of eSampling can control both the quantity and type of samples they receive, based on the needs of their practice.

O'Malley says support services, such as e-mail reminders or online detailing (eDetailing) service, can be offered to the physician in order to supplement the sample request.

"Many eSampling vendors can customise these services based on past physician activity. In addition, the pharma companies can benefit from this process by improving the design of their sales and marketing strategies, allowing them to target physicians who appear to be likely candidates for more comprehensive in person detailing sessions."

As physicians' in person detailing session time shrinks, Datamonitor predicts that the interest in electronic sampling services will grow. According to O'Malley it is already common for a large segment of physicians in the US and Europe to receive free drug samples from sales representatives.

"According to the 2004 Datamonitor Physician Insight Survey, nearly all primary care physicians in Europe and the US have received such samples,|" O'Malley says.

In the UK, about 80% of doctors say they receive free samples from pharma sales representatives at least twice a month or more, with 7% reporting that they receive samples daily; 20% of UK physicians say they have received free samples once a month or less.

"This sort of activity has laid the groundwork that should allow eSampling to gain widespread recognition as a viable distribution vehicle for pharmaceutical companies. The majority of physicians from the UK that we surveyed are not receiving samples as regularly as they would like. Electronic sampling platforms will allow these physicians to ensure that their patients have access to samples when they are most needed.

"The near ubiquitous penetration of the internet also provides an ideal opportunity for pharma companies to provide access to free samples online for busy physicians."

In fact, Datamontitor's 2004 Physician Insight Survey shows that 93% of physicians surveyed have experience using an eSampling platform. Of these, according to O'Malley, over one-third use eSampling services once a month or less.

"Physicians in the UK and Italy are currently leading the way in eSampling adoption. Forty-five percent of physicians from Italy and 50% of physicians from the UK use eSampling platforms once a week or more. Only 25% of physicians from the US report using eSampling as frequently. The key is to get physicians to use eSampling on a more regular, even daily, basis," O'Malley says.

Although presently lagging behind Italy and UK in the adoption of eSampling, the US and Spain currently lead the pharma market in physician interest in eSampling services. Seventy-five percent of primary care physicians in the US and Spain report that they would like to use eSampling services in the future. German and Italian physicians are slightly behind the US and Spain, with 70% and 71% respectively of the surveyed physicians stating that they would like to use eSampling in the future.

"Interestingly, we noticed that although physicians from the UK are currently the most frequent users of eSampling platforms, only 66% reported that they would like to use electronic sampling in the future. Although this seems inconsistent it is important to remember that the eSampling vendor market is still very young.

"Most physicians have used eSampling through pilot programmes and few vendors are consistently offering eSampling platforms. However, as eSampling moves out of the pilot phase and more robust solutions are developed, physicians will gain confidence in the technology."

A clear opportunity exists to increase adoption of eSampling technology by educating physicians about the advantages of using the internet to both receive and distribute pharma samples. Aggressively marketing successful eSampling solutions is particularly important in France and the UK, where physician enthusiasm about future electronic sampling initiatives is the lowest.

Patient interest in eSampling will also play a critical role in developing the market. Datamonitor's 2004 Consumer Insight Study of the pharma markets in Europe and the US reveals 56% of European consumers and 46% in the US indicated an interest in using eSampling services in the future, according to O'Malley.

"These numbers are really impressive, especially when one considers that in Europe, the prohibition of direct-to-consumer advertising currently prevents European consumers from downloading sample vouchers from pharma websites. As more patients express interest in having access to sample vouchers online, manufacturers will increasingly see the value in developing solutions to meet their needs."

Datamonitor's survey indicates that UK physicians frequently use eSampling technologies, although 63% of them say they only do so when the patient requests it. While this indicates a high level of experience using eSampling by physicians, it also indicates a level of indifference to the practice.

"The internet allows patients to take a more active role in their medical care. As a result patients are increasingly driving the demand for several key technologies. Patients do not want to leave a doctor's office empty-handed. Many are aware that even if they cannot get actual sample packets from their physician, they may be able to get sample vouchers. Inevitably, physicians will begin to increase their use of eSampling platforms as the number of patients that enquire about sample vouchers increases," Oalley says.

"One way that drug companies can reach patients is through providing access to drug sample vouchers on a wide range of content appropriate websites, such as general health sites, specific disease sites as well as manufacturer sites."

Electronic sampling solutions are currently moving out of the pilot phase and are being adopted more quickly in the US pharma market than in Europe, but as more physicians in Europe begin to recognise the benefits of eSampling the market will expand as well.

The difference between US and European eSampling adoption rates can partially be explained by consumer interest.

"Consumers in the US are generally more aware of electronic sampling because pharma manufacturers can advertise directly to the general public as well as to physicians. Whereas regulations in Europe prohibit the use of direct-to-consumer websites that advertise products by name. Pharma companies operating in Europe are therefore faced with the challenge of raising disease and treatment awareness without directly promoting a specific drug."

One way drug manufacturers can raise disease and treatment awareness is by sponsoring general health-related websites, now some of the most frequently used sites on the internet. Increasing the interactivity level, including disease management and compliance tools, increases their attractiveness to consumers.

"However, in the UK these sites cannot legally directly promote a specific brand and as a result, cannot offer electronic sampling capabilities. But by expanding a patient's knowledge of various treatment options, drug companies can increase the likelihood that treatment is sought," O'Malley says.

"Datamonitor's 2004 Consumer Insight Survey found that an average of 42% of European consumers have asked their doctor about a specific medication because of something they read on the internet," she says.

Quality services associated with a company-sponsored site have the potential to foster brand loyalty with both physicians and consumers.

"The greatest potential for electronic sampling lies in its role as one component of an integrated marketing solution. A marketing strategy that combines eDetailing with eSampling will allow physicians to access drug information and order samples from one source. Samples can even be provided as honoraria for the completion of an eDetailing session."

Many physicians in fact prefer an integrated electronic sampling and online detailing platform. A sizable number of physicians in the US and Europe feel that the lack of samples provided through eDetailing restricts the uptake of eDetailing services.

O'Malley believes an integrated platform will serve the needs of physicians and manufacturers by facilitating a consistent supply of samples without sacrificing the quality of drug information provided to physicians because of time constraints.

"As with any process change, there are critical operations and regulatory challenges that must be met. Pharmaceutical manufacturers, marketers, eSampling providers and physicians must all work together if practical solutions are to be developed," she says.

Electronic sampling applications, if implemented effectively, can resolve many problems associated with traditional pharma sampling techniques. They can potentially provide a sample distribution process that is safer, more effective and more efficient. In terms of making the sample distribution process safer, eSampling, specifically using vouchers, will make it more likely that a pharmacist briefs patients before they receive the samples.

Additionally, eSampling will allow manufacturers and physicians to keep better track of samples, thereby reducing the number of sample drugs provided to healthcare providers that go unused.

As the pharma industry increases its commitment to eSampling, the vendors offering scalability and solutions that are customised to meet the unique needs of each brand and company will do well within the market. When deciding which vendor to employ, manufacturers should consider which sampling platform is most appropriate for the size and scope of their sample distribution strategies.

"Electronic sampling has great potential to boost sales and supplement traditional marketing processes, but only if it can be successfully integrated into already existing workflows," O'Malley says.



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