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Are Medical Device Reps Wearing Out Their Welcome?

Posted on November 28, 2018


An interesting article was posted to our forums earlier this week which questions the need and usefulness of medical device sales reps in the operating room.

In the article, MPR News gives the reader a general background on what medical device reps do and why they are in the operating room while patients have their surgery.

While most of the article did everything it could to criticize device reps and why they make too much money, ultimately, the need for a device rep's expertise seems to have won out in the end as they concluded that many clinicians are happy to have reps in the room.

The Major Argument Against Device Reps: Cost

The least surprising argument is cost and using what they think a device rep makes in compensation as the example.

As the article stated, "Hospitals are starting to figure out what these reps make for a living. They feel like they're making too much money, and I think that's why they want them out," says Brent Ford, a former sales rep who now works for Nashville-based HealthTrust, a firm that handles contracting and purchasing of supplies like hip implants for 1,600 U.S. hospitals."

"They're looking at costs and saying, 'I want to understand everything that drives cost in my OR,' " says Doug Jones, a former rep with DePuy who now works for HealthTrust to control surgical spending. "I think they're becoming more aware that that rep is in there and saying, 'Is there a cost associated with it?' "


Why does a medical device rep's compensation matter? When people talk about medical device reps making too much money, they are usually not speaking with accurate information.

What most people think medical device reps makes and what they actually make are likely far off as compensation has been going down in the industry for years.

The medical device industry is a tough business with constant pressure and stress. On a daily basis, reps are being pushed by surgeons and hospital staff to meet their needs and they always happily comply. Most hospitals and surgeons don't realize that these reps have 30 other accounts asking them to do the same thing. The reps still do the right thing and make sure their customer is happy.

As to the money argument, no one questions the nurse manager who makes six figures a year. We know surgeons typically make a lot of money. Why can't a sales rep who is typically covering a large geographical area and tied to high-growth quota expectations? If the rep does not make their quota, they will likely be shown the door.

Most people can't stand paying a real estate agent to sell their house. They think they can sell it on their own. The brave try and usually fail, only to hire an agent so the house sells quicker and for a higher price.

There isn't much parallel between real estate agents and medical device reps other than both seem to be negatively perceived. They both tend to be thought of as jobs that are unnecessary, until people fail on their own and realize they're a necessary part of the business process.

The article pointed out an example of a hospital going to one of the new rep-less sales models only to pull the plug on it after it failed. Again, people think they don't need a rep until they realize they do.

From the article:

Hospitals are reluctant to remove reps, for fear of irritating surgeons, who typically don't work directly for a particular hospital and could move their cases to another institution. Those hospitals experimenting with going "rep-less" have done so quietly and have had to hire additional staff to pick up the slack.

One of the first in the country to try, Loma Linda University Health, boasted in 2015 of reducing costs for total knee and hip replacements by more than 50 percent by going rep-less.

But a hospital spokesperson now tells NPR that the medical center has abandoned the effort, though she refused to discuss why.

What do surgeons think of device reps?

One surgeon in the article had this to say -

"I can't keep my socks together through the dryer. You can imagine trying to get 100 pans or 300 pans of instruments all set up correctly," says orthopedic surgeon Michael Christie of Nashville, who specializes in new hips.

We've written about the relationships between medical device sales reps and surgeons. The relationship does mean something. Surgeons want to trust who they are working with. As also mentioned in the article, the surgical cases that most reps cover are complex and the sales reps that surgeons work with better be an expert on their device. While they cannot participate in the surgery, there is no question the rep can help the surgeon and staff through a tough case.

Device reps are supposed to be the experts. Many people laugh at that notion, including surgeons and hospital staff, until something goes wrong with a device in a surgical procedure. The rep isn't saving lives, that's the surgeon and staff's job. However, surgery is extremely stressful and a good rep can make a case smooth for the entire operating room staff which leads to better outcomes.

It's like everything in life: there are no absolutes. There are good reps, average reps and bad reps. The majority try to do the right thing though.

An OR manager agreed -

"You say 'sales rep,' " says Marley Duff, an operating room manager at TriStar Centennial Medical Center. "I look at them more being somebody that's expertly trained in their field to provide support for the implants that they happen to sell."

While there are those that think reps make too much money or are an unnecessary cost in the healthcare system, maybe they should learn more about the job and its responsibilities before they make a judgement. The medical device industry, including medical device reps, are far from perfect. The sales model is constantly evolving and what the industry looks like today will likely be very different 5 years from now.

However, medical device reps play a significant role in ensuring surgeons know of the latest technology and techniques while helping hospitals and operating rooms run smoothly during surgical cases.

It would make sense for hospitals and purchasing groups to look elsewhere in the healthcare system for ways to save money. Medical device reps aren't one of them.

You can read the original article here.