Two recent studies paint a complicated picture of the direction in which pharma access to healthcare providers is heading—and whether doctors are beginning to reopen their doors to drugmakers or engage with them in newer venues, online or otherwise.

One clear consensus found in the pair of studies released by ZS Associates and CMI/Compas is that pharma sales representatives remain an effective tool to engage with doctors—so long as they can get their foot in the door. Whether access continues to decline, or if the headwinds are finally beginning to shift in industry’s favor, remains anyone’s guess.  

ZS Associates said in its annual prescriber preference monitor that “sales reps continue to be the best way to engage the average physician, even though the ‘best’ way is getting steadily worse.” The consultancy’s research found that more than half—or 54%—of the physicians it surveyed restrict access to sales reps. Only seven years ago 80% of all physicians were accessible to reps. ZS researchers believe that rep access will remain restricted in the long term.

Doctors are making themselves available in other channels, though, according to ZS’s findings. Of the 54% of physicians who restricted access, 15% showed “good accessibility in other channels.” It also found that most physicians (74%) have at least one channel that they will use to interact with pharma, as long as drugmakers present relevant content.

CMI/Compas, too, released its annual report on prescriber preferences earlier this week. The media agency found that certain physician groups are more open to hearing from pharma now than they were in past years.

Thirty-nine percent of all physicians surveyed said they now see reps without restrictions—up from 36% in 2014. Only 19% of physicians said they will not see reps in person this year, down from 25% in 2014.

When CMI/Compas drilled down further by looking at physician access by specialty, it found that the greatest increase in access was among primary care physicians. Fifty percent of those polled said they see reps without restrictions, up from 36% in 2014. An increasing number of oncologists, gastroenterologists, cardiologists, ophthalmologists and urologists all said they are more willing to see reps without restrictions compared to 2014 as well.

The increase in access may be due to an increase in new drugs, said CMI/Compas’s chief commercial officer, Dr. Susan Dorfman. 

“It has to do with new product innovations,” she said. “There are many new products on the market, they are different, they aren’t ‘me-too’ [drugs]; they have new mechanisms of action.”

Some of the most innovative medicines brought to market in recent years—such as Merck’s Keytruda and Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo for the treatment of lung and skin cancers as well as Gilead Sciences’ Sovaldi and AbbVie’s Viekira Pak for the treatment of hepatitis C—are prescribed by oncologists and gastroenterologists, two types of specialists that reported they see more reps currently and plan to in the future.

Pharma’s renewed access to physicians may be the beginning of a trend, according to CMI/Compas’s findings. Many specialists surveyed—including cardiologists, gastroenterologists, oncologists, psychiatrists, ophthalmologists and neurologists—said they plan to increase the number of reps they currently see in the next 12 months.

CMI/Compas surveyed 2,680 doctors in 26 specialties. ZS Associates’ research looked at engagements between 632,000 physicians and more than 100 pharma brands.