After 20 years as a medical sales rep and manager Allan Mackintosh decided to do something different, so he set up as a performance management coach. But now he's back working for a pharmaceutical company, saying industry restructuring offers exciting opportunities for ambitious self-starters.

The increased centralisation of NHS procurement means companies need fewer foot soldiers for surgery or pharmacy visits – the number of pharmaceutical reps in the UK declined from 9,000 to 6,000 last year. The good thing for those left is that the restructuring has improved the quality of work considerably, says Mackintosh.

"In the past, it was about coverage and frequency, getting around as many customers as possible and explaining the product to physicians in the hope that patients would remember your drug," he says. "The industry was taking very intelligent people from the NHS and university and turning them into robots."

The job is now more business-oriented, offering sales representatives greater autonomy than before, akin to an account manager.

Drug companies are spending more than £10m a day developing new products, most of which they are not allowed to advertise. So it's hardly surprising that the sales and marketing teams of big companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer – which have more than one-fifth of the market toether – are crucial for a return on their investment.

Jobs in medical sales are well paid and come with bonuses, company cars, mobile phones and laptops. They appeal to self-starters who get on well with people and can work as a team but don't mind long periods alone working out of their cars, says Mackintosh.

But whereas medical sales was once a safe career, it is now more challenging because of increased commercial competition and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. In fact, the term "medical sales" is misleading as it covers two very different fields, pharmaceutical and healthcare. The pharma rep promotes medicines while the healthcare rep sells a wide range of products, from bandages and prosthetic devices to state-of-the-art hospital scanners.

It is possible to move into pharmaceuticals with a degree in any subject, especially if you have a strong sales track record, but in the present climate, a science degree is an advantage, says Rich Morris of Star Medical, the health care sales recruitment agency.

About half the pharmaceutical sales reps in the UK have a science degree, according to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI). A degree is not essential, however, and some companies prefer people with nursing or marketing experience. Within two years of starting work, pharmaceutical reps must pass an exam in areas such as the human body, pathology and pharmacology.

Reps still make appointments with doctors, nurses, midwives and pharmacists, but increasingly sales pitches are at a higher level. Decisions on prescriptions are now more likely to be made by practice-based commissioning groups, reducing the influence of individual GPs.

For those with an interest in medical procedures, a career as a healthcare rep offers the chance to work alongside clinicians, says Sam Kirkham, a director of Kirkham Young, a specialist medical and laboratory sales recruitment agency. It is not unusual for a healthcare rep to be in the operating theatre advising surgeons on how to use products. "Specialists in neuro vascular will go into procedures and help the neuro surgeon choose the right piece of equipment. If your specialism is trauma orthopaedics you may get a call any time from a surgeon wanting to use your product," she says.


How to get in: Science degree or health service experience preferred for pharmaceutical reps but not essential. Healthcare reps need biomedical or science qualifications or relevant health care experience.

Training: Pharmaceutical reps must pass an exam within two years in the job. Most companies train employees in their products.

Career prospects: The job of a medical sales rep is a route into marketing, sales management and training.

Salary: Pharma reps can expect to start on £18,000 to £25,000 a year plus company car, laptop, mobile phone, health care and bonuses of 15 per cent. Mid career they earn £35,000 to £55,000 plus bonus and perks.

Healthcare reps start on £28,000 rising to £50,000 + mid career plus the same kind of perks. Bonuses tend to be higher – a minimum of 20 per cent.

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