In most parts of the world, being a physician brings both prestige and affluence. However, Mao Mengjia gave up a career as a doctor in China for a simple reason: He could make more money selling medicine than prescribing it. Mao, 26, tripled his income after quitting his job at a hospital in northeastern China to work as a medical sales representative in 2009. As many as 14,000 physicians will join foreign pharmaceutical makers, ranging from New York-based Pfizer (PFE) to Paris-based Sanofi (SNY), in China in the next five years, predicts Aon (AON)’s Shanghai-based human resources advisory firm.
Pharmaceutical sales grew an average of 24 percent a year in China from 2006 to 2010 and will expand at a 19 percent to 22 percent annual clip over the next five years, according to researcher IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. IMS projects annual drug sales in China could reach $115 billion by 2015. “The pay for new doctors is low, which makes it hard to survive,” says Mao, who was one of 30 to graduate in 2005 from a medical college in Dalian, 286 miles east of Beijing. Nine of his classmates have since taken jobs in pharmaceutical sales, he says.
Simple arithmetic explains the attraction. A newly qualified doctor makes about 2,000 to 3,000 yuan ($309 to $464) a month, while a one-bedroom apartment in Dalian, a city of 6 million people, goes for 2,000 to 2,500 yuan. Typically three or four newly qualified doctors will rent a flat together to defray their costs, Mao says.
Shi Yingkang, dean of the West China Medical School at Sichuan University in Chengdu and vice-president of the Chinese Medical Doctor Assn., says half his students spurn local hospitals for better-paying jobs overseas or in drug sales. “To them, the pay does not match the effort put in,” explains Shi, who says pharmaceutical reps can earn two to three times more.
China has launched a three-year initiative to invest 850 billion yuan ($131 billion) to expand access to medical care and provide more than 90 percent of China’s people with basic health insurance. The plan is also spurring demand for medicines—and people trained to sell them. Sanofi runs classes for its medical representatives from a center in the 20-story BenBen tower in downtown Shanghai, which it calls the Sanofi-Aventis University. “We brand it as a university, and it does work when we go to campuses and do mass recruitments,” says Freddie Chow, Sanofi’s vice-president for human resources in China. “Chinese people love to be trained. The hunger for knowledge acquisition is very high.”
Foreign drugmakers like Sanofi and their local affiliates will hire at least 35,000 sales staff by the end of 2014, Aon Hewitt China estimates. The same employers had 33,000 on staff at the end of 2010. About 30 percent to 40 percent of people recruited for sales jobs will have a medical degree, says Jarroad Zhang, a consulting director with Aon Hewitt in Shanghai. “In most other countries it’s extremely rare to get fully trained doctors as medical representatives,” says Chris Lee, managing director of Bayer HealthCare China, a Beijing-based unit of Bayer, Germany’s largest drugmaker. Doctors—followed by pharmacists and nurses—are sought after by drugmakers in China for their medical knowledge, he says.
Lee has already met his 2011 target for hiring 1,000 sales representatives and says he may recruit a similar number next year. China will overtake the U.S. as Bayer’s largest pharmaceuticals market in the next seven to eight years, he says. “There’s an understanding within the company that we will need to hire to meet that goal,” says Lee, who began his own career in drug sales with Merck (MRK) in New Jersey.