It’s the job of everyone who works in sales and marketing to make sure that doctors are aware of the benefits of new medicines.

The development of a safe and effective medicine is one thing, but that achievement is massively undervalued if the people whose lives it could improve are not prescribed it. Close links with doctors are an essential part of achieving this. So a major part of any sales or marketing professional’s role is to build relationships with a wide variety of doctors. It’s a two way dialogue and both can benefit from sharing information and opinions. Feedback from out in the field is extremely useful to how a marketing or sales strategy comes together, and GPs and hospital doctors benefit by hearing about new opportunities for treatment from people who really know their stuff.

An international industry

Pharmaceuticals is very much an international industry. So, as well as the challenges you’d expect from such a competitive environment, you have an international marketplace to consider too. Products have to be skilfully marketed so that the huge costs of development are covered, and so that money can be reinvested in the discovery and development of future cures.

This area includes setting prices for medicines, improving supply services, educating patients and healthcare professionals and other work to expand sales and improve market share. Marketing staff will often work with external agencies to create effective advertising and promotional campaigns that do justice to the products on sale. Traditionally, key sales messages have centred on the rational benefits of a treatment. But increasingly, advertising and marketing are helping to create an emotional appeal as well. So it’s possible to create an extremely powerful message which really conveys how the drug can improve someone’s quality of life.

Ethics and regulation

As you can imagine, ethics are at the forefront of these sales. The UK Prescription Medicine Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) regulates the advertising of medicines and other interactions between pharmaceutical companies and healthcare professionals including pharmaceutical representatives. Compliance with the Code of Practice, and with the input of colleagues in regulatory affairs, companies can make sure that sales promotions are always fair and accurate.

A career in marketing and sales gives you a great chance to combine an interest in science with a head for business. Work is research based, but, if you’re planning to go far, you need to be creative. It’s the only way that your products are going to stand out from their competitors.

People who work in sales and marketing

People who work in marketing need to have knowledge of the clinical profile of their products as well as awareness of the techniques for marketing and selling. Each product has a product manager/brand manager who is responsible for the marketing and subsequent profitability of a product in a particular market. 

Marketing encompasses such diverse areas as brand marketing, market development, market research and marketing communications. Within these areas you might develop positioning and pricing strategies, prepare launch plans, work with agencies, develop and implement promotional campaigns, prepare sales materials for representatives and patient education.  

As you gain more experience in marketing, it’s possible to move on to roles such as senior product manager, group product manager, marketing manager and marketing director. Alternatively, or in addition, you can supplement your career development by moving back into sales management as national sales manager/regional business director, where you’ll be managing area managers.

Entry routes

A common first role in medical sales is that of medical representative, which mostly involves promoting prescription products to GPs and hospital doctors, pharmacists and nurses. You can expect to undergo an initial training course, which will teach you all about the products, therapy area, and how to promote them in a very competitive environment. The PMCPA Code of Practice requires medical representatives to take and pass an examination covering their knowledge of the human body, pathology and pharmacology, body systems and three specialist topics selected from a list of 15. These include disease areas, immunology and pharmacology. The exam must be passed within two years of taking up a position as a medical rep in the UK.

You’ll also need to demonstrate some analytical and planning skills, to enable you to determine where to get the most business from your allocated territory. Teamwork is very important too, as you’re likely to be working with two or three other representatives from the same company and sharing the same sales results.

There are many benefits of beginning a commercial career as a medical representative in the pharmaceutical industry. The pay is good, and because you’re often working at home or out on the road, you are likely to​ benefit from a company car, phone and laptop.

Although having a degree isn’t absolutely essential, companies prefer to take on graduates as trainees, or people with nursing, marketing or ethical sales experience. This doesn’t mean you need a science degree - far from it - as long as your academic background can demonstrate your ability to assimilate information at a suitable academic level. Many medical representatives in the UK have a science degree, the remainder are mainly graduates from other academic disciplines.

Career progression

To move on from this position, you’ll need to demonstrate that you’re able to deliver on your sales and activity results. Many medical representatives make their next move in sales training, area management or product management (marketing).

Last modified: 20 September 2023

Last reviewed: 20 September 2023