Pfizer Canada Inc. said using handheld computers instead of notebooks when sales reps visit physicians’ visits will slash by 30 minutes a day the time needed to enter data collected from meetings.

Pharmaceutical sales reps

at the Kirkland, Que.-based drug maker spend an estimated 10 hours to 15 hours per week meeting physicians to receive feedback and place new orders.

Although all sales reps have laptops, only 20 per cent bring them to physician sales visits, resulting in representatives having no immediate access to previous meeting notes and prescription orders, Pfizer Canada said.

So Pfizer Canada gave 1,000 sales reps Toshiba e800 Pocket PCs with Microsoft Pocket PC Office and customized software, which it explained offers a 4.0-inch screen, significant digital storage capacity and NAND flash memory that retains data intact if the battery dies.

A pilot project in the spring preceded the initiative, which rolled out in June.

Claude Baril, senior project manager of business technology whose responsibility is sales systems, said sales reps sometimes leave laptops in their cars while on the road but are not forced to take them into the actual doctor’s office.

“”There’s a lot of items they have to bring already with all the visual aids they use — the very fancy, glossy books that they use to detail the physicians. They also have reprints that they leave behind — medical studies, et cetera — and then the samples.

“”So if you count all that, it makes it difficult to carry at the first point,”” he said. “”Then there’s also problems of theft. There are areas in the country which are more prevalent for theft, unfortunately. So if the laptop is very visible, very present, representatives are well-dressed, they have nice cars, it’s just an invitation to take away the equipment.””

Baril said the other reason reps prefer to leave behind their notebook computers is because “”it doesn’t send the right message”” to clinic patients who may resent healthy Pfizer Canada staff seeing the doctor before them.

The main benefit of adopting the handheld computers was being better prepared for sales visits, said Baril. He added Pfizer Canada is surveying field reps about their experiences, particularly time savings, and will have the results in November. Sales reps say they are now able to view information, such as doctor profiles or call notes from colleagues’ or their own previous visits, he said.

As Pfizer Canada implemented the technology, it found the most significant problem, still unresolved today, is “”getting used to the writing”” because reps weren’t using a keyboard, Baril said.

“”And this is where it’s really sad because entering call notes, which is important and we thought was going to be a huge benefit. It’s still not 100 per cent of where we want it to be because of that.””

Another issue was that some sales reps were too harsh with the handheld, tapping too hard on the keys and breaking the screen, he added. “”These things are robots, but it’s not a tank. There is a level of care that they have to learn.””

Although some Pfizer Canada’s affiliates in Europe attach a keyboard to the unit, Baril said the company is still waiting to see how dramatically this method helps reps.

The drug firm is the main corporate handheld client of Toshiba of Canada Ltd. Jason Laxamana, the Markham, Ont.-based technology provider’s product manager, said the firm is also doing Pocket PC trials with security guards at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, as well as a few medical organizations.

Toshiba Canada, which introduced its first handheld model more than two years ago, said it has experienced “”good success”” with large corporate clients like Pfizer Canada. Yet the handhelds have proved more popular with individuals buying the products at retailers such as CompuSmart and London Drugs, he explained.

Laxamana has noticed companies’ increasing interest in Pocket PCs in tandem with rising corporate spending over the last year. “”There’s definitely a demand for a smaller device outside of a notebook that can host information that’s easily accessible.””

He said according to IDC Canada figures, the main players in this space are HP, Dell and Toshiba. The IT consultancy said this year HP boasted a market share of 50 per cent, Toshiba had 22 per cent, Dell came in at under 20 per cent and a mix of companies like Casio and ViewSonic claimed the rest.

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