Big Pharma needs an image makeover

Big Pharma needs an image makeover

Vice Chairman & Managing Director

Novartis India

Like the biblical Lucifer, the pharmaceutical industry seems to have fallen from grace. Often seen as an industry that is needed by all but liked by few, if at all, the pharma industry is going through testing times. Few industries have tumbled as far, as fast and on as many fronts as drug makers. Ten years ago, Big Pharma was celebrated as the purveyors of exciting new medicines and even more stimulating earnings and growth. But now Big Pharma is under growing pressure to keep delivering even more blockbuster products so as to keep investors happy while at the same time ensure that prices are down.

The pharma industry has in fact become a soft target for critics who would do well to realise that demonising the pharma industry will serve no good. The time is right to recognise the commendable work being done by the industry and to partner with it in putting in place measures whereby more drugs are discovered and made available for unmet medical needs of today and the future. The industry needs the right talent who has the courage to face challenges and make this change happen. Therefore there is room for not only the best but also for those with a keen sense of enquiry and a yearning to make an impact in all spheres be it medical research, regulatory, finance or even marketing and sales. So if you happen to fit these criteria, come join the pharma industry and make a difference to the health of our nation and the world.

Challenges in your path

Currently, it takes at least eight to ten years to bring a compound from an idea to a usable medicine. During that time, pharma companies spend up to $1-1.7 billion researching, developing and testing to create a single drug. According to sources, $ 100 billion worth of drugs will be going off patent by 2010. At the same time, clinical development time has doubled since 1982 to an average high of 68 months.

With mounting pressure on all fronts, pharma companies have to rely on their innate skills to deliver products that meet today’s and tomorrow’s unmet medical needs while at the same time look at avenues to partner with other stakeholders so as to deliver newer products at lower costs.

According to a report in 2007 by the Geneva based ethical reputation research firm Covalence, pharma companies carry increasing ethical risks related to innovation. These innovation-related risks, it says, deal with intellectual property rights, drug pricing, clinical trials, drug side-effects and transparency. In terms of ethical reputation, innovation seems to bring more trouble than benefit to R&D oriented pharma companies.

While historically, large pharma companies have really been the pioneers in corporate social responsibility, somewhere along the way other industries have caught up with them making the pharma industry lose its first mover advantage.

A PriceWaterhouseCoopers report in 2006-2007 showed that contrary to what the reality is, public perception is that pharmaceuticals constitute a much higher percentage of total healthcare costs than currently believed. Consumers erroneously perceive that increased industry spending focuses more on marketing rather than on actual drug discovery. This has led to increasing concerns about the industry’s marketing and sales practices. This image is at odds with Japan, the one country where pharma industry is held in high regard and perhaps there are lessons to be learnt here.

Emphasising the milestones

It is difficult for me who has been with the pharma industry for a long while now to understand as to why the pharma industry which is in the business of saving lives is actually being held in low esteem. I personally feel proud to be associated with an industry that has long been a positive contributor to the overall health and well-being of mankind. The average life expectancy for humans has gone up from about 45 years of age at the turn of the 20th century to about 77 a hundred years later. This is no mean achievement and has largely happened through the efforts of the pharma industry be it by way of increased medical knowledge, better technologies and discovery of several vaccines and drugs.

One thing that cannot be denied is that the pharma industry’s value proposition continues to remain strong.

From paradise lost to paradise regained

The question to ask is whether all is lost. The short answer is no. Fortunately while the industry has seen its reputation dented, it has not reached a point where its reputation has been completely destroyed. This being the case, the time is ripe for the industry to look at ways in which paradise can be regained.

What can the industry do to regain its lost reputation among various stakeholders and get back to being a preferred employer among potential recruits? First and foremost the industry needs to restore public trust. It can do this by deep Introspection and looking afresh at its communications strategy so as to address the misperceptions that consumers have about the costs of drugs in overall healthcare and the actual costs of drug discovery vis-à-vis marketing spend. Many of these misperceptions are formed as a result of erroneous understanding and industry would do well to partner with all its stakeholders in doing away with many of these erroneous perceptions with media playing a supportive role.

I quote one example of how we at Novartis worked to put its view across and another example from industry to illustrate how concerted efforts are being made to clear the misconceptions.

In 2007, at the height of the Glivec case, there was a fair amount of misinformation in media with Novartis being branded as a company that was more interested in profits than patients. This in spite of the fact that more than 99 percent of Glivec was given away absolutely free to those who were prescribed the drug, were appropriate for therapy with Glivec and could not afford it. When the misreporting persisted we changed our stance from being more reactive to being proactive in reaching out to the media. Factual updates were provided almost on a real time basis. This proved to be the turning point. Novartis was seen as being a source of information that was factual and viewed at as being transparent and approachable.

Pharma industry has also seen the need for it to be more vocal in the good work it has been doing and continues to do. Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI) took the lead in developing a Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices for its members. Indian Drug Manufacturers Association (IDMA) has also developed such a code. This has helped industry counter the image that prevails among a sizeable section of society that there exists an unholy nexus between doctors and the pharma industry.Independent studies show that the world over medicines account for just 15 percent of the overall healthcare costs for even a disease like cancer. In a country like ours which has the lowest priced medicines in the world this percentage is lower.It is therefore unfortunate that the pharma industry is constantly in the crosshairs of the government here while little or no effort is made to control other healthcare related costs.