Gilead Sciences’ Alex Kalomparis says pharma has a role to play in  supporting social change and must not shy away from it

The pharmaceutical industry exists to provide innovative medicines to help improve prevention and healthcare, but that is not where the role of pharma ends. Whether intentional or not, pharma creates social change, and therefore must ensure initiatives support this – with longevity and the next generation in mind.

It goes without saying that world-class medicines can change a lot within ecosystems. Access to treatment can transform individuals’ lives, which impacts their families and social circles, and ultimately has effects on communities worldwide. As an industry, we routinely focus on the medical and economic contexts in which we operate but we also need to relate to the social context frequently as well. This is important in building trust within the diverse environments in which we operate, and in ensuring we have an advanced awareness of these environments through active participation. To stay ahead of a rapidly changing world, we must listen and engage with change-makers outside our immediate circles and embrace the creativity all around us.

Social change and pharma

Industry-wide, there are multiple opportunities to take action. Whether establishing patient support programmes, corporate social responsibility or disease awareness initiatives, or by encouraging innovative thinking through supporting charities and trusts, there is scope for pharma to actively and appropriately support change-makers.

A common example is combating negative social attitudes and stigma attached to health issues that may prevent optimal care. To help to dispel the myths and shine a light on patient realities, pharma companies can provide platforms to amplify the voices of experience. This is particularly pertinent to chronic health conditions such as HIV or hepatitis C, where stigma can be a barrier to people seeking the treatment and care that is right for them. The medical innovation may be there, but the social barriers prevent the opportunities for countless individuals to improve their health and quality of life.

Pharma should encourage space for new ideas to be exchanged and to support new patient-led approaches. Gilead’s HIV Age Positively programme aims to address the new and unprecedented challenges that are facing the ageing HIV population, as well as historic challenges that remain such as stigma and discrimination. We have a panel of ‘Future Thinkers’, many of whom are innovators from outside the HIV ‘space’, that work with HIV experts to inspire new approaches and solutions to these challenges.

As part of these these programmes, people living with HIV are being supported in order to maintain progress made in this field. The emphasis is on supporting a positive dialogue around health challenges, acting as ‘facilitator’ rather than a ‘fixer’. In many areas, society has become more disparate in recent years. More than ever, pharma must support in creating space for dialogue around the solutions that are needed to the problems society faces.

Innovation for the future

With the right strategic partnerships and collaborations, innovation can go beyond medicine, towards social change. Creativity, young people and social change might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you say ‘pharma’. But young people represent the next generation of change-makers and innovators in our industry and pharma companies do, and should continue to do, a lot more to listen and encourage these new voices. The breakneck pace of change in the world demands that we continue to attract talent and innovative thinking from all corners – including young people. We are seeing unprecedented scenarios worldwide, and these require continually fresh perspectives.

It is important to listen and champion individuals outside our industry who play a role in supporting positive social change. This is why Gilead is supporting The Diana Award, which seeks to reward those very young people who are already making strides for social and humanitarian change. These impressive individuals are called ‘Young Change-makers’, because they have already either led or been a key part of a socially meaningful or humanitarian-focused organisation or movement which seeks to improve everyday lives. These change-makers are all between nine and 25 years old.

Gilead’s work to support positive social change also includes initiatives to ensure medicines are accessible to those that need them for better future health outcomes. We have learned there is no one-size-fits-all solution to treatment access challenges. One such example is the Gilead Test-and-Treat initiative in rural Tanzania in collaboration with the Vatican and the local Catholic diocese. The programme has now tested more than 112,000 people, brought treatment to more than 3,000 adults and children, and helped prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV for approximately 200 babies. Through this work, the programme aims to help lower the community’s viral load and slow HIV transmission.

In the US, Gilead’s HepConnect initiative aims to reduce hepatitis C infections in Greater Appalachia, fuelled by the nation’s opioid crisis. In partnership with the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC) and local organisations, the initiative will support evidence-based solutions to meet the needs of people most affected by the opioid crisis in Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. In both examples, social action to address healthcare challenges is crucial.

It is our responsibility

Pharma companies have a responsibility to seek out the right initiatives and partnerships for social change. The industry as a whole can be a little hesitant about operating outside a perceived set of boundaries. Sometimes, we might ‘play it safe’ and avoid engaging in initiatives that look further than our immediate horizons. However, bravery based on conviction in doing ‘the right thing’ with the patients’ interests at heart can make a significant difference. By listening and engaging with organisations and agencies outside our traditional, core operations, we can better understand the context in which we operate, and through always learning and develop our thinking, we can thrive.

So, what are the leaders in this space doing right? These companies and their leadership are passionate about patient support, active in their pursuit of the right partnerships and establishing programmes to support social change. These pharma companies have as their mission to help lives, which includes both the development of world-class medicines, but also accompanying initiatives to support the wider social contexts in which healthcare exists. These are the players that recognise that the time to think about the future is now; we must prepare for the challenges facing us today and tomorrow, and therefore encouraging the next generation in its creativity and problem-solving skills is a worthwhile investment.

All of this requires consistent listening and engaging with communities, and continuous investment in enhancing expertise from the pharma industry as whole – and this starts with individual company programmes and initiatives.