Healthcare / Pharmaceuticals

Healthy outlook for pharmaceutical sales as the economy improves

by Mary Luk

Andrea Chang, associate director, marketing, Pfizer Corporation Hong Kong

Greater awareness and increased willingness to spend on healthcare products leads to more opportunities for sales representatives

There has rarely been a better time for young people to consider a career in the pharmaceutical sales field. Public interest in healthcare is stronger than ever and a recovering economic situation means that overall spending on medical treatment is rising.

Andrea Chang, associate director for marketing at Pfizer Corporation Hong Kong, says that more young people are now urgently needed to promote and sell prescription drugs to hospitals and clinics. The bright outlook is expected to continue in the future as a rapidly ageing population further increases demand for healthcare products.

Pfizer, a research-based healthcare company headquartered in New York, was founded in 1849. Established in 1956, Pfizer Hong Kong is responsible for the sales, distribution and promotion of Pfizer products in the local market. Pfizer's medicines cover an extensive range of therapeutic areas.

The company has rapidly become the biggest supplier of prescription drugs in the Hong Kong market, with more than 10 per cent of market share. Among Pfizer's better-known products is Viagra, which has proved hugely popular since its launch here in 1998.

Rapid expansion

Five years ago, Pfizer Hong Kong employed only 50 staff. Today, its workforce has grown to 170 after acquisitions of pharmaceutical companies Warner Lambert and Pharmacia, in 2000 and 2003 respectively. Human resources director Polly Cho says that the company's rapid expansion means it needs more young professionals to replace experienced executives who have been promoted to more senior positions as healthcare representatives.

Talented people are now being recruited to carry out ethical and interactive marketing of the company's growing range of products. Career talks are held regularly in universities for science, biochemistry and pharmacy undergraduates.

The work of Ms Chang, a trained pharmacist, and her 20-member team involves planning strategies to market new products that will be introduced to doctors and pharmacists. They also have to update medical experts on Pfizer's latest advances in research and development.

In promoting pharmaceutical products, marketing executives have to follow ethical guidelines stipulated by the Hong Kong Association of the Pharmaceutical Industry and are required to be fully committed to the effectiveness of the drugs promoted.

As Ms Chang stresses, they also play a wider role than that of merely selling. "Continuous medical education is also part of the marketing executives' mission to promote health within the community," she says. "For example, through medical practitioners, patients are told how to lower high-level cholesterol."

Though it is ideal for someone with pharmaceutical training to embark on this type of marketing career, professionals with some pharmaceutical experience and good networking in the medical sector are also suited to the job, provided they work hard and know the products well, Ms Chang notes.

The entry position for marketing is associate product manager. Subject to satisfactory performance, he or she will then be promoted to product manager, and then senior product manager, and subsequently to director level. Marketing executives are paid a basic salary and, if they are able to help achieve the company's business objectives, are rewarded with bonus payments.

Once strategic marketing plans are drawn up they are passed on to the sales department for implementation. Sales director Tony Cheung, who manages about 100 healthcare representatives, says they must possess thorough knowledge of the drug products they sell, be hardworking, energetic and enjoy working outdoors. They must also be fluent in English, and good at presenting figures such as research data.

Persistence pays

Each healthcare representative is daily required to meet at least six to seven medical personnel, including doctors, nurses, family physicians, and specialists. They may make advanced appointments or simply walk in.

"We don't really treat ourselves as salesmen. We, in fact, are healthcare representatives providing a service," Mr Cheung points out, adding that a successful healthcare representative must be persistent with a "never give-up" attitude when encountering difficulties.

The frustrations facing sales staff in the pharmaceutical industry can be very complex, the more so in a field where ethics are paramount and outside factors can transcend the usual cost/benefit equation.

Newly recruited healthcare representatives go through comprehensive training lasting for 12 to 18 months that will help them reach the necessary level of expertise. They are also required to pass an exam on their product knowledge. Although university graduates are preferred, those with relevant sales and product knowledge training are also considered.

Once he or she has worked successfully for 18 months, a healthcare representative can expect to be promoted to the level of professional healthcare representative. It takes another two to three years for him to become a senior healthcare representative. Outstanding executives are then transferred to more senior positions such as associate product manager or clinical research associate or can opt to stay in the sales department where they will play supervisory or managerial roles.

Although demanding, the career can be rewarding. Apart from basic salaries, healthcare representatives receive travelling allowances and generous incentives once they meet sales quotas. They also enjoy job security and a spirit of continuous learning.

Career path

  • Comprehensive 12-18 month training programme
  • Advancement to professional healthcare professional after further 18 months
  • Senior healthcare professional after three more years
  • Outstanding executives promoted to associate product manager or clinical research associate
  • Opportunities to assume management role within sales department

Taken from Career Times 23 July 2004
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