Drug Reps Fear iPad's Spying; They Should Be Worried About Their Jobs

Last Updated May 19, 2011 1:40 PM EDT

As more drug companies supply their employees with iPads, sales reps are increasingly paranoid about their employers' ability to spy on them. In fact, though, they should really be worried about whether companies will even need humans to promote pharmaceuticals in the future.

The iPad is driving three trends in pharmaceutical marketing right now:
  • A number of companies are buying iPads in bulk for their salesforces even if they don't have presentation software to run on them. Eric Newmark of IDC Health Insights wrote recently:
During recent conversations with large pharmas, I have heard leadership at several companies make comments similar in nature to "we have not yet purchased an iPad-based SFA [sales force automation] software product, but we know we will eventually, so we're buying the devices now." More than one company has told us they have already purchased iPads in significant volume and are storing them for later use.
  • Sales reps are waking up to the iPad's tracking abilities. In addition to its ability to constantly record its location, reps are finding that company software also records their activity while the device is switched on.
Pfizer (PFE) believes it will save $500,000 a year by giving new sales reps iPads instead of "several large boxes of textbooks and manuals." Printed training materials for new reps can cost up to $1,000 per rep, but an iPad can be reused for each new incoming class of employees.

Other companies rolling out iPads to their reps include Stryker (SYK), Medtronic (MDT), Eisai, Novartis (NVS), AstraZeneca (AZN), Sunovion, ProStrakan and Millenium.
Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez believes iPads will prevent reps from making illegal "off-label" pitches for drugs. In a March email to employees he wrote:
Another benefit of having sales materials on the iPad is that our reps will be more compliant -- unlike with paper versions, you can't alter the electronic materials.
The resistance starts here
Novartis reps are already plotting their resistance to the devices on Cafe Pharma, the drug industry's anonymous gossip website. There's a thread on "beating the iPad" here and one on preventing the iPad from tracking you here.

At Pfizer and Abbott Labs (ABT), the arrival of iPads has triggered lengthy debates about what this means for the fate of reps. One Abbott rep wrote:
... the ipads can be tracked with the GPS. This job will come to opening the sim app in the parking lot for a couple of minutes, then going in the office to dump or stack samples.
On the same issue, a Ferring rep gives this advice:
Go into your general settings. Find the button that says Locations services. You will see all the items Ferring is tracking in a minute to minute basis. Turn this button off and leave it off always.
Whether iPads are spying on reps may be a moot point. If most doctors end up with iPads, and drug company presentations can be downloaded in attractive, useful and compliant apps, then why would a company need a human sales rep to cart a pad to a doctor's offices? For sales forces, the iPad could be more of a tombstone than a tablet.

Related: Image by Flickr user FHKE, CC.

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