They’re the heroes. They’re the cool kids. They’re the indispensables. They’re in medical products sales. Yep, this story’s all about the reps who bring lifesaving devices to those in the most need and sometimes just in the knick of time. These days, the life of a medical products sales rep is all about saving lives and the great feeling that comes from serving others. In the hit movie The Pursuit of Happyness, actor Will Smith plays a medical device salesman who reaches fame and fortune by breaking into investment sales. If that film had been made today, the producer might have been tempted to switch the two professions. Ever since the world economy had a meltdown, selling investments has become about as popular as peddling toxic waste.In contrast, medical device sales is a rapidly growing field in which sales reps command serious respect. “Medical device sales reps are a critical element of today’s healthcare system,” explains Dale Hagemeyer, an analyst who specializes in sales technology for the medical market at the market research firm Gartner. “If it weren’t for medical device sales reps, the ability of hospitals and doctors to provide effective healthcare would quickly decline, and people would die. These are sales reps who definitely save lives.”REPS IN THE OPERATING ROOMConsider, for example, an event experienced by Devin Hughes, director of sales at Genzyme Biosurgery, a company that develops and markets products for cartilage repair and severe burn treatment. On his first day at work at his new sales job, he was out on a field call at the Las Vegas University Medical Center. He was quickly brought into a busy operating room, where he was shown a patient lying on a table, semiconscious, with a machete sticking out of his chest.Hughes waited while the doctor removed the machete and then helped the doctor apply a Genzyme product that would keep the wound from developing crippling scar tissue. “The guy survived somehow, which was amazing. This wasn’t a simple operation, because the machete was lodged close to his heart,” says Hughes. “Realizing that I was playing a major role in whether that guy lived or died was a real wake-up call to what this job was all about.”Turns out that medical device sales reps are frequently present in operating rooms, according to Hagemeyer. “The healthcare field has an enormous appetite for breakthrough products that have a great potential to save lives,” he says. “In many cases, the people who are best informed about how the new products work are the sales reps, which is why the doctors want them right where they can provide hands-on help.”Not that the sales reps are picking up scalpels. Their contribution is limited to advising and demonstrating, making sure that the medical product is used in a way that is most likely to benefit the patient. Even so, there’s no question that, without the help of the medical device sales rep, new equipment and new techniques would take much longer to fall into common usage.”We truly are agents of change,” says Michael Maske, vice president of sales at TransMotion Medical, a vendor of specialized chairs and stretchers. “The members of surgical teams, like everyone else, are creatures of habit. When they operate, they get used to doing things a certain way – knowing where the buttons are located, as it were. By showing the surgeon, the nurses, the anesthesiologist, and so forth what’s new, we provide a bridge by which they can incorporate better equipment and procedures into the operating environment.”JUST-IN-TIME LIFESAVERSMedical device sales reps also perform the crucial role of providing just-in-time inventory to doctors and hospitals. Because medical facilities are expensive to run, floor space is always at a premium. As a result, few hospitals or doctors’ offices are willing to commit storage space for products that are needed only occasionally. Furthermore, such inventory costs money to purchase ahead of time – money that cannot be recouped until an operation has taken place.Doctors understandably prefer to schedule operations in advance and order the devices and inventory they’ll need when they need them. However, it is not always possible to forecast demand in an environment that’s often driven by emergency situations. To help out, many medical device sales reps act as storage depots for the equipment, products, and supplies, bringing them directly to the doctor when needed.”Suppose a doctor needs an artificial knee to replace one damaged in a car accident,” explains Hagemeyer. “He can’t wait for an overnight FedEx if the patient’s leg is already opened up. However, there’s a good chance his local sales rep has a selection of the latest artificial knees inside the trunk of his car and can probably get that knee to the hospital within an hour or two.”Medical device sales reps also provide doctors with inside information about products coming out and how they’re different from existing offerings. This inside scoop allows doctors to decide, for example, whether to delay a nonemergency surgery until better equipment is available. “In many cases, the sales rep provides the highest level of medical consulting that doctors are likely to receive from somebody who’s not another doctor,” says Hagemeyer.Medical device sales reps also gather feedback from their customers and ensure that the feedback impacts the design of future products. Additionally, medical device manufacturers often allow their reps to present prototypes to selected doctors, who then act as an informal focus group, providing suggestions to make the device more useful or easier to use. When patients complain about an existing device, the sales reps often hear the complaints first and then become conduits to the engineers who need to fix the problem.Medical device sales reps even provide service and support for the devices that they’ve sold. “They’re really the bridge between the doctors and the engineers inside their firms,” says Hagemeyer. “Medical sales personnel are viewed, inside their organizations and out, as holding a position worthy of both authority and respect.”TRAINING TO SAVE LIVESSome of that authority and respect comes from the extensive training that medical device sales reps must typically undergo before going out into the field, according to Hughes. “In our company you must complete an eight-week training program, starting with three to four weeks on basic anatomy,” he explains. “You then move on to all the different procedures that doctors perform to address different diseases. You must learn the surgical vernacular – what doctors and nurses call things in the operating room – as well as what you can and can’t touch. And that’s even before learning all the clinical data and product features that you’ll need to sell and support your company’s offerings.”That last element can be extensive, because medical devices are becoming increasingly complex as the result of a revolution in the way that such devices are designed and manufactured. Because they’re now based on the latest computer technology, many of today’s medical devices provide a wide variety of specialized functions, according to Steve Kennelly, manager of Medical Products Group at Microchip Technology, a maker of computer chips for medical devices. “We can now build entire computer systems into a single chip that goes inside a tiny device,” he explains.Today’s medical devices are smarter and more accurate and can save a great deal in healthcare expenses, according to Jack Lam, senior product manager at American Portwell Technology Inc. “Compared to medical personnel, a hardware system is low cost and has a low maintainance cost,” he explains. However, all that extra functionality comes at a price – and often that price is an increase in the amount of time it takes to learn to use the device effectively. And that’s where the training comes in. “A good medical device sales rep can make the difference between success and failure in the operating room,” says Hagemeyer.The extra effort is worth it, however, because medical device sales professionals earn the satisfaction of knowing that they’re not just selling something…they’re saving lives. “What really turns us on is that we’re truly making a difference,” says Hughes. “When I was in high-tech sales, selling was pretty much another day, another dollar. Now when I get up in the morning, I know that I’m going to work hard but that there will be people and families, who – even if they don’t know it – will owe their lives to the products and services that I provide.”In short, medical device sales reps are unsung heroes of the healthcare world. Maybe, if Will Smith someday decides to make another sales-oriented film, he’ll tell the story of a financial services sales rep who moved into medical device sales. Maybe he could call it The Pursuit of Healthcyre. Or maybe not. Still, it would be nice to see these unrecognized heroes of the sales world finally get public credit for helping doctors save lives.