Oli Hudson, Content Director and John Chater, Solutions Director in Education and Training, at Wilmington Healthcare explain how an in-depth knowledge of the fast-changing NHS is essential for pharma sales representatives.
Singular possession of extensive product and therapy knowledge is no longer enough for pharma sales representatives. To successfully engage with clinicians and payers, and ultimately ascend the career ladder, those in the field also need to be fully conversant with the seismic change that is occurring within NHS service design and delivery.
For example, they need to understand how health, social care and related organisations are integrating to enable the NHS to provide more holistic, population-based care as set out in the NHS Long Term Plan.
These changes are bringing a host of new stakeholders into the decision-making mix, some of whom may have overlapping roles. They are also creating new governance structures.
“The speed and scale of NHS change is making it increasingly difficult for training managers to equip sales representatives with the breadth of customer knowledge needed”
Keeping abreast of change
Wilmington Healthcare, which runs the Digital Learning Academy (DLA) – the only online learning platform for the life sciences industry that focuses on the NHS and its sales environment – commissioned research among 100 customers and prospects regarding training and education issues.
More than a quarter of respondents (26%) said that keeping abreast of constantly changing targets and national standards, organisational mergers and changes in commissioning structures was a key challenge.
This is understandable, as the speed and scale of NHS change is making it increasingly difficult for training managers to equip sales representatives with the breadth of customer knowledge needed to engage with new stakeholders and broaden discussions where appropriate, to show, for example, how a drug fits into a new pathway; or how it relates to new NICE guidance.
Engaging with Key Opinion Leaders
What type of information is needed and how can it give sales representatives the edge when it comes to better clinical engagement and career development? As the NHS takes an increasingly holistic and preventative approach to patient care in order to stem the rising tide of diseases, pharma sales representatives need to establish themselves as credible partners who are not simply selling products but also helping to provide solutions to challenges faced by the NHS.
To help achieve this, they need to be fully up-to-speed with the latest structural changes, not just nationally but also regionally, since different areas of NHS England are developing at different rates. Some have Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) in place, while others are in financial recovery and therefore at the start of their integrated care journey.
Sales representatives need to know how the new Primary Care Networks (PCNs); Integrated Care Partnerships (ICPs) and ICSs work, the services they deliver and how they are being incentivised to meet targets. They must also learn about the new decision-making units that are being created within integrated care organisations and the wide variety of Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) they comprise, including the most senior NHS executives, transformation leads, medicines management staff and clinicians, local authority officers, charities and patient groups.
Knowing the rank and status of KOLs and where their roles overlap is also important, together with an understanding of the new accountability and governance structures that have been created within ICSs. By acquiring this level of knowledge, sales representatives can also raise their profile among their peers by, for example, establishing themselves as the ‘go- to person’ for advice on how to engage with specific stakeholders.
Whole system benefits
The ability to define how a drug fits into an integrated care pathway and how it can deliver wider benefits across health and social care systems is another critical skill that can set pharma sales representatives apart. This is because primary and secondary care budgets are being joined up; hence healthcare organisations must collaborate within regions to deliver whole system savings.
So, for example, a sales representative who is trying to sell an expensive new diabetes drug to a Sustainability and Transformation Partnership (STP) or ICS may have a much greater chance of success if they could explain how this new product could help the NHS to deliver on key priorities such as cutting the length of hospital stays by promoting faster recovery, or reducing A&E admissions.
By having an in-depth level of understanding of how integrated care organisations work, and since clinicians tend to be very disease-orientated and less involved with wider commissioning issues, a sales representative could also empower clinicians to make the case for a transformative product or service.
In fact, armed with the required level of knowledge, a sales representative could even help to facilitate engagement between transformation leads, commissioners, service development managers and clinicians to speed up transformational change.
Another tactical advantage of acquiring this level of knowledge is that it also helps staff to understand segmentation and prioritisation, which can unlock silos and money within the NHS. So, for example, if a product is not highly competitive in terms of the whole pathway cost, it may be more effective for a company to risk stratify a particular patient group and market its product to that group, rather than the entire NHS.
New care models are changing the way the NHS operates, bringing a wide range of different, and often non-clinical, stakeholders into the decision-making mix, who have the potential to significantly alter the business model for pharma.
Sales representatives who can keep abreast of these changes, understand the needs of a wide range of stakeholders and work in partnership with the NHS to determine how a drug fits into a new integrated care pathway, will be increasingly in demand as the NHS seeks more holistic, joined up, preventative solutions.