Scheduling drug reps online

February 17, 2006

Companies offering online sales appointment scheduling say they can make your practice life easier. Are they right?

For years, pharmaceutical sales reps had been a disrupting presence at LaPorte Medical Group, a 13-doctor multispecialty practice in LaPorte, IN. But for administrator Denise Sherman, the tipping point occurred one day last February.

As she walked by the front desk of the FP area, Sherman noticed more than a dozen reps hovering around. The crunch was so bad that incoming patients had to struggle just to see a receptionist. There's something wrong with this picture, Sherman thought to herself. "We love our pharma reps, but our first priority is to our patients, and these reps were squeezing them out," she recalls. Then and there, she vowed to take action.

A few days later, she received a mailing about a company that claimed it could help. The company was PreferredTime, which offers medical practices like LaPorte Medical Group a way to coordinate and manage their pharmaceutical sales appointments. Reps who want to schedule a practice visit call PreferredTime directly or make their appointments online, subject to certain constraints. PreferredTime then notifies the practice of the next day's appointments by fax or e-mail. Sherman has been using the service for about a year and-despite some initial resistance on the part of a few reps who liked the former freewheeling system better-things are going very well. "We absolutely love it," she says.

Enter scheduling companies like PreferredTime, RepConnect, and Appointment-Plus, which promise to impose some order on this chaos, leading to what they see as a win-win for both doctor and rep.

But not everyone is impressed. "It's a solution in search of a problem," says Judy Bee, a practice management consultant in La Jolla, CA. "The thing that stops reps from becoming a burden is when a practice has a policy that tells them what they can and can't do." About 68 percent of practices have such a policy, according to the Medical Group Management Association.

Still, some practices are better than others at enforcing their own rules. And for those that don't have any to begin with, some extra assistance might just prove useful. But are sales-scheduling companies the best way to go? We took a look at how they operate to help you decide.

A focus on pharma: RepConnect and PreferredTime

Scheduling companies fall into two broad groups-those that target the pharmaceutical industry specifically-at this point, PreferredTime and RepConnect have this market largely to themselves-and those like Appointment-Plus that target multiple industries. Let's first look at the pharma-specific companies:

RepConnect: A do-it-yourself tool. This company essentially offers practices a software tool to use in house. "We provide the tool, and the practice decides how it's implemented," says William Messerly, president of the Westerville, OH-based company ( http://www.repconnect.com).

Founded in 2003 by Messerly and two othe r partners, the company says its 16-month-old Internet-based service is currently used by 280 practices, approximately 60 percent of which are in primary care. On the sales side, just over 5,000 reps are now using the system, although Messerly acknowledges that some pharmaceutical companies have taken "a wait-and-see attitude" before giving their salespeople the green light.