What do numbers mean?

If you think about it, anyone who can count can collect numbers.  The key is whether the numbers mean anything, and if so, what?

That  was the problem with the last US election, and it may be a problem with the French election in Sunday. We’ll see.

However, let’s talk about a more amusing example.

A new journal article claims that restricting the access of pharmaceutical sales people to doctors results in a 1.67% decrease in scripts for brand name drugs. The article claims that freebies like coffee mugs can cause doctors to feel in some sense obligated to write scripts for brand name drugs rather than cheaper generic drugs.

More likely, having something on a shelf showing the drug name may remind the doc about that drug when writing a script. Either way, the effect is the same.

The article goes on to assert that limits should be imposed on these salespeople to help reduce drug cost and excessive prescription of medication.

That’s one way to look at the data. There’s another.

If I’m a drug company executive, and I’m spending a mint on a network of pharmaceutical reps and their area managers, and all I have to show for it is a 1.67% lift in sales . . . . WTF? That’s not a winner for a resume.

Of course, there are exceptions. If a drug is remarkably expensive, then the tiny increase in sales could justify the expense.  But for most drugs, that’s not true.

Another question — why aren’t sales reps more effective? Perhaps they only really contribute in the early stage of introduction of a new drug to the market?

To a large extent, pharma companies have depended on government regulation for profitability. Does that make them less attentive to management basics? Any you want to buy their stock for what reason?

That’s the fun in numbers. Read them, and then think about other ways to look at them.


  1. Diana Swift, “Restricting Pharma Reps’ Access Cuts Brand-Name Prescribing,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Published online May 2, 2017. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/879395?src=wnl_mdplsnews_170505_mscpedit_wir&uac=153634BV&impID=1342087&faf=1#vp_2

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