Why a better reputation for pharma is good for your health

Why a better reputation for pharma is good for your health

By Leith Partner, Brian Coane who also leads Leith's specialist Health Marketing team

Across Europe healthcare systems are faced with increasing costs. The demographics of an ageing population, increasing life expectancy and the escalation in the prevalence of chronic disease means that amount of money we spend on today’s medicines is rising.

And with over 7000 new medicines in development, if we keep on the same course, that bill is about to get higher. Nobody would argue against having innovative new medicines with the potential to change and save lives. But the argument around how we pay for them often seems to have the different players at loggerheads. The narrative is quite familiar.

Pharma argues there needs to be more money for innovative new medicines. The industry’s case is the development of new medicines is risky, takes a long time and has no guarantee of success. So, pharma says, it needs to cover the costs of the drugs that fail to get to the market with the profit from those that do. Critics argue that the cost of new medicines should be based directly on how much they cost to develop. Governments maintain that there’s never been more money invested in healthcare.

In this debate the pharma industry struggles to be anything other than the ‘bad guy’. An industry putting profit before people. In the most recent survey, from reputation gurus Edelman, pharma takes the lion’s share of the blame for the high cost of care. Trust in the pharma sector is a lowly fifty five percent. Carolyn Paul, who heads up health work at Edelman, thinks it’s poor relative to other sectors: “to me that’s simply not good enough for an industry that is about saving lives. It’s when you set it in the context of other sectors that I think it’s particularly worrying. When you see industries like tech, which every single year are way higher – at the top of the pack, around the 70s – and healthcare is always around the 50s, that is disturbing, I think.”

Is it worrying? Does it really matter what kind of reputation the industry has and how trusted it is? It should be something that matters to us all. We need pharma. People are used to scientific advances getting from the lab to patients. But they often don’t think about the role pharma (and many others) play in making that happen.

Reframing reputations

Importantly the next generation of medicine will require greater collaboration. Many of the innovative medicines in the pipeline will require a different approach. We’re moving into a new era, from genomics to data analytics, that will improve our health. Many of the pressures on healthcare systems also require a different approach. Poor management of chronic diseases such as diabetes leads to costly complications that could be avoided with a more joined up approach. When you think about it in this context the reputation of the industry becomes important to us all. It’s hard for any collaborations to flourish if there’s an underlying distrust of pharma.

Reputation is about more than just marketing gloss. It’s the oil in the machinery. It decides if things flow smoothly or grind painfully. Reputation – positive or negative, true or untrue – fundamentally affect our behaviour towards people and their products. Some quite progressive companies do not get nearly as much attention, interest or investment as they deserve. While others are still trading on a good image they acquired decades ago.

At Leith we work with a model for companies, brands and organisations to help improve their reputation. There are three elements: Competence: how you are perceived to perform; Intention: the motivation you have as an organisation and Character: your personality and public face.

Why a better reputation for pharma is good for your health

Our work has given us some valuable insights into the perceptions of the pharma sector. On competence, unsurprisingly the industry is highly regarded. People have come to expect life changing and life-saving medicines. On character, the industry can veer towards the complex, but there has been a marked shift in more human communications, with the emotions of better health being brought to the fore. The challenge around intention is significant. People question the industry’s intentions and motivations. As long as pharma is framed in this way it will struggle to be anything other than the bad guy.

We’ve been working to reframe the industry in Europe with the ‘We Won’t Rest’ campaign. Reframing is what communications do at ‘their best’. Disabled athletes reframed as super-humans. Hospices from a place to die to a place that lets you get the most out of the time you have. Cancer from a death sentence to something that you can prevent, detect early and survive.

This experience has also brought us into contact with many people across the industry. Healthcare professionals, scientists, people buying and people selling medicines. What is striking is that they all have a similar motivation. Their ‘why’ is to do the best they can for the patient. Often this comes with a personal connection. Like Jacob Sten Peterson, who oversees Novo Nordisk’s stem cell research and development. He has dedicated more than 20 years to finding a cure for Type 1 Diabetes and in 2016 his daughter was diagnosed with the disease. On a personal level he could not be more motivated to find a cure. This dedication is matched by thousands across the industry, with and without a personal story.

Shared cost, shared responsibility?

We face significant challenges in shaping the future of healthcare. Many of which are hard to solve. But one that’s within our ability is to change reputation. This matters for people working within pharma. But it should matter to all of us. Because we can’t deliver better health without them.

There’s no doubt that some companies have done the pharma industry a disservice in recent years. Greedy organisations demanding high prices for medicines makes a good story and reinforces negative views. The industry itself tends to be very quiet when these stories break. They need to get on the front foot provide some balance. When there is bad behaviour should they not call it out as such? A refreshingly honest approach would appeal to many people.

The whole sector needs to share the responsibility for cost of healthcare. As Edelman’s survey shows, it’s pharma that takes most of the blame in most markets.

Why a better reputation for pharma is good for your health

In contrast to pharma, where the bad apples seem to ruin the crop, stories about malpractice with healthcare don’t spill over beyond being an isolated incidence. Failings in a hospital doesn’t taint the hard-working reputation of doctors and nurses. Everyone has a story of a healthcare professional who has gone above and beyond in caring for them of a loved one.

Perhaps that is where pharma’s greatest problem lies. Researchers are cast as the heroes who make the breakthroughs. Everyone has a story of a healthcare professional who has gone above and beyond in treating them or a loved one. But how many innovative medicines would get to patients without the pharma industry? Just because it’s less common to meet someone in pharma who was influential in getting a new medicine into the hands of a patient doesn’t mean we should be ignorant about the important role they play. A better understanding of pharma is good for our health.