Healthcare Careers Uncovered: Medical Devices vs. Pharmaceutical Sales

Often lumped together as a group, Pharmaceutical Sales and Medical Devices have fundamental differences. Having a thorough understanding of each, how they are the same and how they are different can give you greater insight into which career path to pursue.

Pharmaceutical Sales

Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives are hired by pharmaceutical companies to sell products through persuasively presenting information about their products to medical practitioners. The products are usually medicine for certain conditions or diseases. The prescribing doctor is the sole decision maker in what is used. It is ultimately up to the patient whether they fill the script which results in a sale.

Entering Pharmaceutical Sales, a person is known as a “rookie” in the industry. These roles have huge potential for career development and are in high demand.

Successful Representatives are dedicated to hitting certain KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators). These include hitting daily call rates, having in-depth clinical knowledge and increasing market share of products. In addition, delivering key selling messages during meetings is important to becoming a successful Pharmaceutical Sales Representative. Industry sales data is available monthly, although typically there is a lag time between sales activity and results.

Certain soft skills such as being tenacious, a self-starter and organised are also key skills needed for the job.

For more in-depth information about starting a Pharmaceutical Sales career read more here.

Medical Devices

What does Medical Device Sales entail?

‘Medical Device’ is an all-encompassing term for an instrument that is used to diagnose, prevent or alleviate an injury or long term complications with chronic diseases. A medical device can be anything from surgical tools used in surgical theatres to consumables such as gloves or bandages. It can also be an implant used to replace, support or repair biological structures such a cochlear implant into the inner ear.

Medical devices are used in clinics, but many Medical Device Sales roles focus on selling within public or private Hospitals.

Some examples of consumers of medical devices are orthopaedic surgeons, intensivists, NUMs, emergency medicine staff and more. Thus in Medical Device Sales, the goal is to meet with the above customers and sell, advise, and train the customer on the medical device. This type of selling requires building long term relationships across a broad range of customers.

Medical Device Representatives are measured on transactional sales quantified through actual dollars and/or units sold which are normally available on a daily basis through the company itself. Other measurement includes successful account management, ability to create and analyse reports and positive behaviour.

Medical Devices vs. Pharmaceutical Sales

Although the line between Medical Device Sales and Pharmaceutical Sales can get fuzzy at times, there are certain distinctions between the two that can sway your career decision in either way.

The Product

The starkest difference between these roles, is the product you’re selling.

While medical devices pertains to physical equipment (such as stethoscopes), pharmaceuticals concern medicine prescribed by doctors (such as pain relievers). Pharmaceutical Representatives spend much of their time learning about a certain condition or disease state plus learning how the product works.

In Medical Devices, time is spent on the above with the addition of knowing how procedures are done with the device. Representatives then have to train doctors on these procedures as part of the sale. Sometimes it can be a relatively easy device with little training, such as guiding a surgeon through use of a particular type of forceps. Other times, procedures include inserting an implant such as a pacemaker to manage regular heart rhythms. This is a serious surgery for which the doctor needs training on the particular pacemaker in addition to the kit and tools needed to set the pacemaker in place.

Target Market

Pharmaceutical Sales usually targets General Practitioners or Specialists, while Medical Device Sales, targets Hospital staff (admin, nurses, surgeons, procurement etc). Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives need to understand how to approach General Practitioners and the type of information they respond well to including clinical facts, trials and the answer to “why should I use your product?”

Many more players are involved when selling a medical device. It is not just a doctor or specialist that has to approve the product, but it may also have to go through the hospital board, the theatre purchasing staff, hospital clinical resources, product review committees or finance department to close and approve the sale. Being comfortable talking to various types of people in different roles is one of the keys to success.

Work Environment

On a day to day basis, both roles revolve around meeting with key individuals, scheduling appointments and traveling for meetings.

Pharmaceutical Sales has a more predictable schedule usually 9am-5pm, Monday through Friday. Occasionally there are evening meetings and weekend travel for events or conferences. Also, Representatives will generally have a country territory that they’re required to visit every 4-6 weeks for a week at a time.

While in Pharmaceutical Sales most time is spent at GP offices or clinics, some device roles require you to be in theatre. This type of work environment requires consideration of things such as ‘can you stand the sight of blood’ or ‘can you stand for 5 hours straight’.

Some Medical Device roles can be “on-call” and requires more flexibility. For example, if you are a Surgical Device Representative, due to unforeseen complications with previous patients, you may wait five hours or more for a doctor to use your device in a surgery. Most of the time, you have to be present for the first couple of surgeries to direct the surgeon on the proper and efficient use of the device.

Also, if suddenly a specialist decides to utilize your device, you may have to clear your other scheduled appointments and make them your priority. The time commitment is something to keep in mind as hours add up and it can potentially be more time-consuming than Pharmaceutical Sales.

The Sale

With Pharmaceutical Sales, once you come to an agreement with a GP and they actually prescribe your product, you can feel reassured (but never certain) that sales should increase.

Within Medical Sales, the selling cycle is much longer. Not only do you have to convince the customer to use it, the hospital staff to buy it, but then you are also responsible for advising and training on the product as part of the sales process.

Pharmaceutical Representatives are allowed to provide free evaluative (sample) products to General Practitioners. They can also provide doctors with lunch in order to catch a moment of their time. For Medical Devices free evaluation products have to go through a rigorous documentation process and be pre-approved before the product is made available.

Tracking sales is quite a different process as well. As a Pharmaceutical Representative you may be able to see which suburb is doing well. It’s usually measured on IMS data (Pharmacy buying in from wholesalers) which is normally 4-6 weeks behind the actual transaction. In Medical Devices, you are able to see daily reports of transactions and ordered equipment.

Education & Skills

Both roles are within sales for which similar soft skills are needed such as being a great communicator, being a product expert, ability to build relationships and being passionate about the product. Being able to be clearly articulate information and paint the product as solving the customer’s pain point while simultaneously improving patient quality of life is a necessary skill.

In both specialities, it may be difficult to gain access to the target GP, specialist or surgeon. Getting in front of the right people is half the battle. It takes someone who is persistent, dedicated and innovative to catch a doctors’ interest and keep it.

Both specialities are in the medical field, so a science or healthcare related background can be beneficial. Most companies will require a science degree and background such as Nursing, Physiotherapy, Biomedical Engineering or Bachelor in Business, Marketing, MBA.

The Opportunity

It’s good to remember that every company is different regarding remuneration as well.

Generally, Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives start on a salary between 60,000 – 70,000, plus bonuses, car package and superannuation. For a Medical Devices Representative the starting salary may be lower initially, yet they usually have a higher earning potential through uncapped commission of their sales (in addition to the car and superannuation packages).

It is important to note that most device companies tend to ‘poach’ experienced Representatives from Pharmaceutical Sales. Alternatively, they may take on people with clinical backgrounds such as Radiographers etc.

Whilst Device Sales might be your long term goal, you may find it easier to start your Healthcare Sales career in Pharmaceutical Sales where the market is more open to rookies and often a more structured learning environment is provided.

Medical Devices vs Pharma Sales Chart


At the end of the day, both career paths are vibrant and rewarding. Sales Representatives educate doctors on important progress within the healthcare industry whether it be physical medicines or technological innovations.

We hope this article gave more insight into both professions. Nevertheless, as with making any career decision, it’s necessary to research everything you can and weigh each option diligently.

There may be certain areas you are skilled in, such as understanding and explaining clinical information. On the other hand, perhaps you’re better skilled at learning procedures and guiding others. Perhaps you have time commitments where Pharmaceuticals Sales fits better into your schedule. Perhaps you prefer a higher base salary or on the other hand, prefer a commission based role. Many times it comes to personal preference and personal priorities.

There are many factors to making your decisions and it’s our passion to place people into roles they desire and will excel in. If you are considering a career in Pharmaceutical or Medical Device Sales, please don’t hesitate to call us today for a consultation.

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