The tomorrow salespeople
What skills will you need to sell or market healthcare technologies in the next decade? Ian Sandison of Remtec Search and Selection takes a look at what the future holds for medical device sales.
With scientists in Geneva seeking to recreate the cosmos as it was following the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, let’s take ourselves on a comparatively short journey into the future and explore how the medical device market may look in 10 years’ time: how patients and products will have changed, and how the role and approach of the salesperson will also have changed. I have asked a number of industry leaders from a cross-section of medical device companies – large and small, UK and international – for their views.
Into the future
We can start by looking at where we have got to in the past ten years. The main trends in the market then are remarkably similar to those operative now.
The population is growing and living longer, technology is becoming smaller and faster, and we are more digitally enabled and computer-aware than before. The patient is more aware, via the internet, of what products are available and more empowered, through monetary means to pay for medical devices themselves.
For the salesperson, the past decade has seen the laptop and the handheld PDA become daily tools. For marketing professionals, the promotional website and other e-marketing strategies have become second nature.
The next ten years will see the rapid growth of the digital networking culture. Medtech companies will need to develop the technical skills of their sales force, while managing the rising cost of employees driving thousands of miles in their repmobiles.
Glad to be grey
The UK population continues to age: we now have more pensioners than children, and the fastest-growing age group is the over-80s. In the future, with more people living on their own, a higher proportion of the population will have an unsupported old age and rely on some form of state support. The state retirement age will also begin to increase in 12 years’ time. Today’s pensioners are more aspirational: we have seen people going for their first skydive at 85, learning to ski at 73, climbing Everest at 65.
It is well known that patients consume a large proportion of their ‘whole life healthcare budget’ in the last five years of their lives. Many of the ‘Grey Population’ (as they are commonly called) have the means to go it alone: no longer content to agree with their GP, they are web-enabled and can find out about the latest new treatments and products – then not only demand these, but pay for them if necessary.
This self-health investment is already starting with the ‘assisted living’ market, where many products are being developed to aid and assist patients in the setting of their own home to live longer and in more comfort.
Another growth area is social networking sites, most of which have groups and chatrooms covering the major surgical topics and therapy areas – diabetes, cardiology, knee replacements and so on.
Many of the larger medical device companies have discussion groups and chatrooms on their own websites for patients to share experiences. These are a valuable feedback tool to help companies ensure that their service offering is meeting the needs of the consumer.
Closer to home
The digital revolution will heavily influence how patients access and use new healthcare technologies. We have already seen the first personal healthcare monitors, where a range of vital signs can be monitored in (almost) real time and any readings outside of preset parameters result in a message being sent (often by SMS) to a physician, who may then intervene. What may be lost in terms of personal interaction is balanced by saving time and letting the patient remain in a non-clinical environment.
Other prospective advances in medical technology include:
- Internal diagnostic products such as camera pills, where a real-time picture is transmitted from a swallowed pill as it passes through the body. This can be used to detect bleeding in the bowel, a potential indicator of cancer.
- Further miniaturisation of implantable products, enabling them to be used in a younger patient population.
- Use of the patient’s own body tissues in treatment, such as stem cell storing and transplantation or the development of whole replacement organs.
- Use of synthetic and animal artificial skin products.
- Non-white light laparoscopy, giving a more detailed and potentially accurate view of tissues.
- Nanohealing blood-clotting gels for wound closing.
The next phase of development is likely to be electronic implants that have mutual connectivity and can communicate with each other through a ‘body area network’. Implants will also have enhanced components: as well as sensors they will contain motors and actuators, greatly increasing their functionality.
All of these developments mean that medtech product designers are seeking more new materials to place into the body for the long term. These materials need to be more flexible than metals, and various ceramics are being investigated. How these products will be powered for long-term use is another challenge: the battery life and size will need to be optimised. Perhaps in ten years time we will have developed products that can draw energy from within the body by harnessing sugars and ions available in the tissues.
Selling for tomorrow
How do these changes affect the day-to-day role of the salesperson and the way companies go to market?
There is a shift towards presenting products in digital formats: laptop demonstrations, graphics and videos now often form part of a sales call. The enhanced technology of the products will require the salesperson to be more skilled in these competencies.
The advent of technologies for remote monitoring and intervention (such as remote image-guided laser surgery, where the surgeon is in a different place from the patient) may help to promote a culture in which the salesperson is remote from the customer.
Web-based demonstrations and webinars (web seminars) are becoming a common means for companies to reach their customers. This, along with the rising travel and exhibition costs, may help to explain why many healthcare exhibitions are seeing a decline in company and delegate attendance.
The salesperson-customer relationship is and will remain critical to the sales process: we like to buy from people, and technologies that enable face-to-face contact at a distance will be vital to healthcare sales in the future.
The way forward
The demand for more effective healthcare, combined with the development of new technologies to meet that demand, promises a healthy future for the medtech sector. However, healthcare systems – particularly in the UK – are slow to adopt new technologies. With continuing downward pressure on costs, adoption will be driven firstly by a compelling cost case, secondly by ease of conversion from current technology, and only thirdly by clinical advantage.
The medical devices sector is an exciting one to work in: it enables us to bring new ideas and technologies to customers, ultimately improving patient lives. However, in the future we will need to be adaptable and flexible in order to develop the new skills required to bring these technologies to the market.