Thoughts on Pharmaceutical Programs

Pharmaceutical ProgramsPrograms have long been  a subject of controversy when it comes to the pharmaceutical industry.  For those of you who are unaware of what a pharmaceutical program is, it is a dinner (or less frequently a lunch) where a pharmaceutical organization pays a physician that they trained, to speak on a specific product to his/her peers.  Typically the pharmaceutical representative that is responsible for the territory in which the speaker practices, assists in setting up the venue or restaurant, and hands out invitations to other physician in his/her given geography with the hope or aim that they can get a good turnout to the event.  The purpose is to educate physicians on a specific product and create interest in seeing the value of that product for their patients.

In it of themselves, programs are completely legal as it relates to compliance as per the FDA (US Food and drug Administration).  When it comes to programs what must be explored however are the various perspectives had by all on programing and where these perspectives derive.  Let’s take a look at the various perspectives of programs by the following groups:

  • The Pharmaceutical Representative
  • The Physicians
  • The Speakers
  • The Public

The Pharmaceutical Representative:  I can tell you unequivocally that the large majority of pharmaceutical representatives out there either loathe conducting speaker programs or do not see the value or return on the invested budget monies.  Frankly many see it as a waste of time and the hours leading up to the program are filled with fear and angst.  Let me explain.  There are typically minimum requirements on how many attendees must attend a pharmaceutical program to make it fully compliant.  These minimum requirements are put into place so that there are no one-on-one dinners or even the appearance of a one-on-one dinner.  These types of dinners have been outlawed long ago.  So as any professional worker will tell you, after a long day of work, they simply want to go home to spend time with their families and relax or do the things outside of work that we all long to do such as exercise or go out to dinner with our spouses or a million other things.  Physicians are no different!! No matter how many invitations a pharmaceutical representative hands out and no matter how much pleading one does, there is always that very tense moment that a pharma rep goes through right before a speaker program, hoping that in fact at least two attendees will show up making it a compliant program.  The weeks leading up to the program are stressful and tense.  A representative will typically make sure the physicians in their territory who are historically amenable to attending are locked in and committed to going.  Once they get the minimum attendee requirement the stress somewhat subsides .

In terms of return on investment, because it is typical that the same physicians attend time and time again, they have likely already heard, know about, and utilize, the product being discussed, therefore making it a complete waste of time and money.  The pharmaceutical representative who is told to utilize budget monies appropriately will do so as a good worker, but inwardly likely does not believe there is much return on investment.

However, with all of the above being said, there is that occurrence where the pharmaceutical salesperson does believe there is a return on investment and finds it easy to get attendees out.  That is with a new product launch.  When a new product is launched the idea of the pharmaceutical programs are a shining beacon of light and a wonderful tool in a representative’s armamentarium. Physicians are interested because it is a new product, representatives are excited because they know that physicians will want to hear about a new product and hence getting attendees out to a dinner will be easier.


The Physicians: When it comes to a physician’s views on pharmaceutical programs there are different doctor types;

1) Those that think pharmaceutical programs are a complete waste of time and simply will not attend:  Representatives get to know these types of physicians quickly and simply stop inviting them. However, if it is a physician that has strong influence or prescribing potential, a representative will continue to try, and try again….especially if a newly launched product.  The stronger representatives eventually get these physicians out.

2) Those that don’t care about what is being said at the program, but they want to attend for the free meal in a halfway decent restaurant or to socialize: You would think that physicians wouldn’t care about which restaurant, but when your think more deeply doesn’t everyone care about which restaurant they attend?  Just like any human being, physicians want to try new trendy restaurants too and rightfully so.  If pharmaceutical programs are being held at the latest “in” restaurant, this has the ability to get people out.  Additionally, many times smarter representatives who understand the makeup of their territories will try to get out physicians who know each other and are friends.  Who doesn’t want to go to a cool restaurant with their friend?

With this category, there is that occasion that something is said by the speaker that peaks the interest of an attendee who otherwise was there just to enjoy the food at a cool restaurant.  This is why representatives come up with creative ways to get physicians out.

3) Those that believe that they can and will receive good information at pharmaceutical programs:  And lastly there are those physicians who have checked their egos at the door and are open minded, well intentioned professionals who know that it is impossible to know and understand everything about every single drug on the market and therefore they come willingly and with their ears and minds open to learning.  To be honest this is the minority, but I would be remiss if I didn’t give them the necessary representation in this post.

These are the physicians who ask questions, who listen attentively and are grateful for the invitation.  Hats off to these physicians…you are out there and appreciated by representatives from all geographies!!  Thank you for believing in the power of pharmaceutical programs!!


The Speakers:  When it comes to trained speakers, you have typically two types;

1) Those that are in it for the money and beg to receive more speaking engagements:  Unfortunately in my experience I would say that this is the case more times than not.  Let’s be honest, the speakers of pharmaceutical programs make money or what’s called an “honorarium”.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting paid for a professional service despite what the media or misinformed journalists will make you think.  But for the capitalistic business owning, practicing physician, the opportunity to make more money is enticing.  Hell, if I was a physician I would do the exact same thing.  A speaker for multiple products across multiple pharmaceutical companies can increase their income markedly by becoming a speaker at pharmaceutical programs….and many of them push unabashedly to do so.

2) Those that take great pride in speaking intelligently on the products that they are trained on and who do it with grace and  dignity:  Of course I would be remiss if I did not mention this segment of speakers of pharmaceutical programs.  Imagine the amount of time, energy, effort, and work that goes into becoming a Medical Doctor.  It is a very prestigious honor and one that should absolutely be celebrated.  Many speakers are high achievers who simply want to win and achieve at everything they do. These types of speakers are impressive human beings.  This group knows their stuff and shine when speaking in front of an audience.  Don’t get me wrong, these physicians also like the honorarium, but it isn’t only about the money to them.  It’s about leading the discussion amongst peers and therefore being a thought leader, achievement, and for some perhaps even the power of being in front of a room or knowing more.


The Public:  Unfortunately when it comes to pharmaceutical programs,  the public are many times misinformed by the media.  Every single story that I have read in a magazine or news segment that I have seen on television paints a completely incorrect picture of what speaker programs are.  I would even go so far to say that they angle their stories in a way that gives their audiences the idea that something underhanded, deceptive or greedy is going on.  Now I must disclaim that there are genuine stories of individuals speaking off label or behaving outside of the rules, but this is not what we are speaking about.  Pharmaceutical programs in it of themselves are ABSOLUTELY LEGAL and a respected method of conducting medical business that educates physicians on pharmaceutical products.  The stories you will read about or watch on television (about pharmaceutical programs) however make it seem as this is not the case and that the corporations involved or the physician speakers are doing something illegal.  Again….IT IS COMPLETELY LEGAL to conduct a speaker program so long as all rules and regulations are complied with.

The media’s incorrect representation of pharmaceutical programs has given the public a jaded understanding of what they are, the purpose of programs, and what each associated professional gets out of them.  This has led to what can only be explained as a mischaracterization of a legal business practice as deemed by the governing agency…the FDA