Advice From Afar: How Remote Access Enables Medical Device Representatives to Work With Clinicians
By Matt Phillion
In terms of patient safety, the role of a medical device representative often goes unmentioned. But the pandemic introduced new challenges and shed light on existing ones as providers and reps worked to connect and collaborate in and out of the operating room.
“The role of the med dev rep goes back to the earliest days of medical technology in the operating room,” says Daniel Hawkins, CEO of Avail Medsystems. “It was really an educational perspective. The industry needed a way to train and launch new products and explain how to use them.”
For 50 years, healthcare benefited from the presence of device representatives, Hawkins says. But over that time, a great deal changed in the background. “The number of hospitals went up; the number and complexity of the therapies went up; the number of ambulatory surgical centers and other points of care dramatically went up. But the medical device industry [did not grow] their sales force in a ratio with those elements,” says Hawkins.
Today, that means reps are stretched thin, with facilities in need of them more than they can be physically available. And before the pandemic, physical availability had been a requirement. Reps would travel so they could be in the room during a procedure, and often they covered territories that were hours apart. “The same reps covering Chicago would cover Springfield,” says Hawkins.
The thesis, Hawkins says, is that building a hardware-enabled network in procedure rooms to provide remote access for medical device reps would enable them to supply their expertise no matter where they are or how quickly they’re needed.
More and more, Avail and its partners are hearing that providers want to know about strategies to leverage remote access to medical device representatives. “It’s an extraordinary shift from three years ago,” he says. “Three years ago, the question was ‘What is remote?’ Now we recognize the value of it.”
When an organization needs a rep now rather than later, remote access technology starts opening up doors, Hawkins says.
A shift in perspective
There was some concern that shifting to remote would negatively impact jobs, Hawkins says, but the opposite has happened. Some of Avail’s vendors have created additional jobs built around both in-person and remote access, and the shift to remote has improved facilities’ access to reps and the reps’ quality of life in their role. It’s also allowed reps to cover cases at more hospitals in a single day than they could while being physically on-site.
“Previously, they could only get that level of meeting their customers’ needs in person,” says Hawkins. “Think about the example of Chicago and Springfield. A rep in Chicago has a customer in Chicago that won’t perform a case unless their rep is available: ‘That’s my guy, I need him.’ But let’s say that rep is in Springfield that day. Those places are a few hours apart.”
The rep could call in a colleague to cover that case, but the provider might strongly prefer to work with the person whom they know. Using remote access, the rep can dial in from the parking lot in Springfield and help their Chicago-based physician through a case in real time, with no compromise in service quality.
A representative’s job is intensely demanding and requires them to be available at all times—in fact, that is most commonly why reps leave the field. “That impacts your lifestyle,” says Hawkins. “I had one rep who was really quite open about how they hadn’t taken a true vacation in 17 years because they needed to be close enough to drive to their customers on call. Their vacations were always intrastate so they wouldn’t lose connection to their customers.”
The personal cost of that is severe, he explains. “We’ve had other reps who use our platform share anecdotes that they drive to dinners with friends in separate cars from their spouses in case they get a call,” says Hawkins.
The average rep spends 60% of their time on physical logistics such as driving to hospitals or waiting for cases. “If you can give them back half of that time to support a portion of their customer activity remotely, you’ve given them a release valve on their personal lives,” says Hawkins. “If they can engage with cases from the home office, that’s meaningful.”
Hawkins notes that these reps can see procedures across the entire physician community, more than any one physician could experience, giving them a broader perspective that can positively inform their work. “They can see different techniques and can help provide an extraordinary value,” he says.
The right time for change
While the challenges of travel, availability, and logistics predate the pandemic, the experiences of the past few years were a catalyst for change that has made remote access for reps possible.
“Avail started in 2017, and in 2020, we had a static web page where you could request more information,” says Hawkins. “But when COVID hit hard and hospitals were shutting off access to the medical device industry, we were getting inbounds every day asking if we were in this hospital or [saying] ‘I can’t get into my OR.’ ” Clinicians wanted reps in the procedure room, and those reps needed remote access immediately.
“The pandemic was 100% a catalyst for an appreciation for remote into healthcare,” says Hawkins. “It took it from being scary to acceptable to necessary, and I’d say it’s now required.”
Medical device vendors and hospitals now have teams partially or solely focused on elevating remote access into operations. Leading medical partners have jobs dedicated to integrating remote into their processes. “Three years ago, I couldn’t have said those words,” says Hawkins. “From a standpoint of launching a business, it’s been a catalyst.”
Remote, Hawkins says, goes beyond medical education and procedure support. “It’s a way for the entire business to engage with clinicians who are treating patients every day,” he says. “Engineering, marketing, training, executive engagement—there are whole categories of access that can happen because of remote.”
Hawkins sees a unique, fascinating future for field-based teams. “I truly believe there will be another set of skills that are developed by those who fully embrace remote, who will be better able to serve their customers and enable their customers to better care for their patients.”
This use of technology can become a difference-maker, not just financially but in terms of taking the lead in the industry, he says. “Those who have fully embraced remote are being called out as leaders. The next five or 10 years will be transformational for their workflow. It will completely change how they do their work and how they serve their customers.”
Matt Phillion is a freelance writer covering healthcare, cybersecurity, and more. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.