May 2, 2017
July 11, 2017


The competition in the medical sales industry is fierce, but the field is lucrative and challenging. Here are some examples of types of medical representatives. This is in no way comprehensive, but serves to give you an overview of what the medical sales industry is about.

Medical Representatives are sales representatives who call on the medical fraternity. There are various categories of medical representatives, dependant on which products are being sold and who the representative is calling on.

Pharmaceutical Representatives sell pharmaceuticals or drugs such as capsules, tablets, liquids, injectables or intravenous solutions.

‘Ethical’ products are medical products from drug research companies, and are considerably more expensive than other products on the market, due to the fact that these companies spend billions of dollars on research for these drugs.

Research Companies Research companies spend billions of dollars each year developing drugs on a molecular level. Any pharmaceutical product launched has to go through stringent testing, starting in laboratories and progressing to animal trials, then human trials. Drug trials, called double-blind crossover studies, are run in conjunction with a placebo – a drug visually identical to the trial drug, but containing no active ingredients. No one conducting the trials knows which is the placebo and which is the test drug. All products go through this expensive and time-consuming testing, just some of which include cough and cold medication, antidepressants, antibiotics, insulin, tranquillisers (anxiolytics), and cardiovascular medication such as antihypertensives and cholesterol-lowering agents. It can take between 12 to 15 years of testing before a new pharmaceutical drug progresses from the patented molecule to a product on the market, and many are discarded before ever reaching the market, because they were proven unsuccessful during testing.

Different categories of Pharmaceutical Representatives  GP Representatives  This is a challenging job not for the fainthearted, as doctors are increasingly difficult to call on since representatives no longer give free samples.

  • These representatives call on general practitioners only.
  • Representatives are usually expected to call on eight doctors per day.
  • Representatives are expected to see the top 20% of doctors who will give them 80% of their business. Naturally, these doctors are the busiest, some seeing 30 patients each day, and all other representatives are trying to see the same doctors, so the GP representative has to find innovative ways to see a general practitioner. This means that the rep has to build relationships with each doctor and their secretarial staff. The representatives often do ‘hi viz’ campaigns. For example, taking the doctor a newspaper ever day with the product name on it, or a cake with the product name iced on top.
  • Representatives need to be presentable, energetic, able to cope with rejection, and good at building relationships.
  • Representatives must have an excellent paramedical background in order to easily converse at the doctor’s level.
  • Representatives either make appointments to see the doctor, or ‘spec’ the doctor – arrive at the doctor’s rooms and try to see the doctor. Some representatives use both methods.

A major hurdle for the GP rep to overcome is that doctors often only give three to six appointments a year, but representatives are required to see the doctor eight to 10 times in that period. Drug companies usually have three to four representatives per division in the Western Cape, and some companies have several divisions, often making up a total of up to 15 GP representatives in the Western Cape.

Specialist Representatives

  • A specialist representative has usually been a GP representative first.
  • This rep calls only on specialists, such as surgeons, cardiologists, physicians, gynaecologists, and so forth.
  • The sales process is far more academic, and their level of knowledge has to be substantially greater, as they will often have to sell using knowledge of clinical trials, and, therefore, they have to truly understand and be able to discuss the scientific aspects of the trial.
  • Specialists are seen by appointment only, and the rep generally spends quite a bit longer with a specialist than a GP representative does with his or her doctors.
  • Specialist representatives have an average call rate of five or six doctors per day.
  • Specialist representatives often attend conferences (sometimes international) and journal clubs (groups of doctors who meet to discuss the latest developments in their relevant fields).
  • Some companies have one specialist rep covering the entire Western Cape, while others divide them by area or product speciality.

Hospital Representatives

  • These representatives call on hospitals and deal with stores, the pharmacy, management, and sometimes coding committees.
  • Some representatives call on both state and private hospitals, while others call on only one or the other.
  • The large hospital groups have ‘formularies or codes’ that list the products the hospitals stock, and doctors may only prescribe these. Doctors aren’t keen to go through the hassle of obtaining a code, so motivating them to do so for a new product is a major challenge.
  • These representatives must be able to sell the products academically, too, since most doctors and specialists in private practices tend to follow their local teaching hospitals. For example, in Cape Town’s Northern Suburbs, the doctors are more likely to use what Tygerberg Hospital is using, while doctors in the Southern Suburbs tend to follow Groote Schuur Hospital’s lead.
  • These representatives must be highly motivated, bright, able to cope with rejection, and able to drive the drawn-out process from beginning to end.

Pharmacy Representatives

  • These representatives call on pharmacies and pharmaceutical wholesalers.
  • These representatives often negotiate with the pharmacist for more shelf space, in order to gain more product exposure and, therefore, more sales.
  • Wholesalers keep large volumes of stock and deliver to pharmacies on a daily basis, so most large pharmaceutical groups, such as Dischem, are major clients of theirs.
  • In addition to selling, the pharmacy representative sometimes has to unpack stock, clean shelves, build displays, or train pharmacy staff. If the products are non-prescription, they have to encourage all pharmacy staff to recommend them.

Surgical Representatives (Medical Representatives)  

  • These representatives sell anything, from bandages, swabs, needles, catheters, ET (endotracheal tubes) and sutures to theatre tables, lights and cameras.
  • The larger companies have different divisions, such as urology, where they sell bladder slings, or gynaecology, where they sell ablating products.
  • These representatives spend a great deal of their time in private or state hospitals, many in theatre with various surgeons. It’s vital that these representatives know theatre protocol and are able to cope with the sight of blood, along with the different odours typical of a theatre, as they often have to go into theatre with the surgeon to guide him or her through the use of a new product. This can be incredibly stressful, especially if there is a problem with the product.
  • This job is probably not suitable for mothers of young children, because representatives often have to be scrubbed and in theatre by 6:30 a.m., and most crèches and schools only accept children from 7:30 a.m. onwards. However, if you love the drama of hospital and the thrill of being on call, this job is ideal.

    Cath. Lab. Representatives  

  • These representatives sell anything from angiogram balloons and venous and arterial stents, to cameras and x-ray/ultrasound equipment.
  • It goes without saying that, in the field of cardiology, representatives are dealing with highly specialised products and need to be on top of their game at all times.

Wound Care Representatives

  • These representatives call on surgeons and other hospital departments to speak to any nurse or doctor who deals with wounds.
  • Bedsores can be a big problem for long-term patients, and wound care representatives often go on ward rounds with the medical team, and sometimes visit patients at home.
  • Most hospitals have an infection control sister or team, and these would also be part of their customer group. Usually, a wound care rep is a nursing sister.

Managed Healthcare Surgery

  • These representatives call on medical aids and managed healthcare companies in an attempt to get their product coded for usage.
  • In order to keep drug bills down, managed health companies and medical aids limit the products a doctor can prescribe by means of a list of approved products called ‘formularies’. Since it’s no use your GP or specialist prescribing drugs their patients’ medical aids won’t pay for, it’s vital for representatives to market their products to managed healthcare companies.

Endoscopy or Keyhole Surgery   Non-invasive surgery has become very popular, since the risk to patients is lower, recovery time faster, and the hospital stay shorter (and, therefore, cheaper).   The instrument with which keyhole surgery is performed is called a trochar, which has various disposable items used with it.