Pharma sales rep go out to the field with rigorous drug training

It’s a practice called “detailing” in the pharma trade – when drug manufacturer sales reps visit doctors and other clinicians to peddle a new medication. But these traditional ‘face-to-face” visits are under pressure as increasingly busy healthcare providers reject sales calls – and direct advertising to consumers rises. Still, the pharmaceutical sales force remains the front line of marketing, hawking the likes of Entyvio for colitis or Celebrex for pain. They are a well-trained field team, informed about the metabolic makeup of a drug, side effects, dosages, and clinical trial statistics. Many pharmaceutical companies outsource the training of these pharma sales reps to companies like Illuminate (, founded by Shaun McMahon, a former sales rep himself. He heads up a team of technical writers, graphic designers, editors, and developers who translate complex medical information into accessible and marketable language. Their training materials are produced within the narrow confines of an extremely regulated industry, with tight FDA restrictions on what can and cannot be said when describing and promoting pharmaceuticals. McMahon spoke with Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene about his role in helping pharmaceutical companies to get drug reps out into the sales field.


“I was a pharmaceutical sales rep for asthma and allergy products two decades ago – back then the training was very lecture-based and there was a lot of pressure to learn the material very quickly. We had a huge binder of notes that I usually had time to read through only once, and there was little time for rigorous respiratory training. It was counter-intuitive to the learning process. Today, at Illuminate, we work with the marketing departments of life sciences companies to create interactive learning systems that keep sales reps engaged and give them the opportunity to test and apply what they’ve learned. There is still a lot of paper-based training but 80 percent of what we do is digital, whether animations, video, podcasts, or slides. When we helped launch Adasuve about a year ago, a orally inhaled medicine, it was being rolled out to an existing sales force. We created online courses, followed by assessments to certify they knew the information. This was concluded with a drug-launch workshop, where the regional director talked about messaging and frequently asked questions to anticipate on a sales call. All such material for pharma reps goes through heavy scrutiny before it is released, with a promotional committee – composed of regulatory, medical, and legal representatives – reviewing it to make sure it is appropriate and within the scope of the product label. All the script is annotated and referenced to medical articles or journals. And when I was in sales, there was more latitude for sales reps to talk about the drug competition, but today you can’t make the competitive claim that a drug is more efficacious unless there is an actual head-to-head study that proves this to be true. Most of our clients are mid to smaller size pharma companies, and we work on 20 to 30 different brands a year. The increasing speed in which companies work to bring drugs to market means that our timelines are also shortened. We play a crucial but little-known role in the billion dollar pharma marketing business.”

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