What’s next for the pharmaceutical industry?

Following nearly two years of the spotlight being shone on the pharmaceutical industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is perhaps unsurprising that the pandemic has led to increased public visibility of the sector in general, driven largely by coverage of a handful of companies.

Over the past 18 months, a number of pharmaceutical companies - and by proxy the industry - have become household names. As people hear more about them, they think they know more about them. At the same time, pharmaceutical companies have been able to demonstrate their ‘value’ in a different way – going beyond treatments and showing their ability to respond to public need, work in partnership and deliver things ‘for the greater good’.

This increased public visibility has translated into improved perceptions across key audiences – including the public, politicians and healthcare professions. Leading international reputation trackers, surveys, and industry barometers have concluded a net positive improvement in the reputation of the industry including on metrics such as trust, and public perception.

All in all, because some pharmaceutical companies are in the public eye, more people feel positive about the sector, and assume it is both more trustworthy and more transparent than they previously believed, despite little change in familiarity with it, or any deeper understanding of what it does.

This tide will turn. The pandemic won’t last forever, and it is likely that the net positive reputation impact will fade. At best, the pandemic has hammered home the precarious relationship between the public and the pharmaceutical sector – and shown how the actions of one company can affect the whole industry.

Recent controversies over expensive treatments combined with ongoing drug pricing discussions in the US demonstrate that some perceptions haven’t changed – although, interestingly, some manufacturers of COVID vaccines have pursued high prices with limited criticism.

In the UK, there have been some positive signs from Government about the future of its relationship with pharma. Science and innovation were front and centre to the recent Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review, with the Prime Minister stating his ambition to forge Britain into a ‘scientific and tech superpower’.
As challenges other than the pandemic come to the fore in 2022 - including economic downturn, growing population burdens and the climate crisis, the pharmaceutical industry needs to find its place, engage meaningfully with Government, and demonstrate its continued commitment to working for good. To do so, there are three interconnected areas where the industry should focus its attention: creating meaningful collaboration, harnessing the power of data and information, and purpose-driven communications.‘The pandemic has brought into sharp focus how important the long-term sustainability and resilience of health systems is’

1. Creating meaningful collaboration

For individual companies involved directly in vaccine production and the COVID-19 response, there has been unprecedented access to Prime Ministers, Health Ministers and other government stakeholders. The speed of decision-making and collaboration between certain companies and governments has increased dramatically.

We know that realising the ambitions set out in the Life Sciences Vision – the ten-year strategy published in the middle of this year – will require government, industry, the NHS, academia and the third sector to work together in a different way.

The sentiment is there, with the Government acknowledging that making this vision work will require private sector expertise and the removal of unnecessary bureaucracy. Kate Bingham, the Government’s vaccine ‘tsar’ has already said that the successful approach of the COVID Vaccine Taskforce could be applied to dementia.

Turning this sentiment into a reality requires more work. Some of the success of vaccine development and deployment was made possible by the crisis. Both pharmaceutical companies and governments accepted a level of risk way beyond normal levels that was only justified because of the emergency situation – both in terms of funding and in terms of regulatory reviews. Turning this model into something that would work for other diseases would be transformative – rolling regulatory review would be a gamechanger in enabling access to treatments for rare diseases. It would require a big shift in the status quo.

To achieve this, collaboration will be key. Although the Government’s warm words were there, there is crucial missing detail in the CSR and the budget. Clarity on funding for the MHRA and NICE is needed to make any expediated regulatory process a reality.

From an industry perspective, active engagement on willingness to change clinical trial protocols and take on more risk may open the door for governments to consider their own processes. A willingness to innovate, from both sides, could open doors to conversations that haven’t historically got off the ground – from regulatory flexibility to value-based pricing.

However, much as the net positive benefit from the actions of a few companies has been enjoyed by the sector, any negative impact as a result of challenging pricing conversations will also have a sector-wider impact. The industry could do worse than agreeing together what its position is, so that future collaboration with the Government is as smooth as it can be.2. Harnessing the power of data and information

The COVID-19 pandemic, more than anything else, highlighted the importance of data and information, from the genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and public health surveillance systems to adverse reporting and electronic health records.

It’s no secret that advances in healthcare are likely to come from real-world evidence generation and data. It’s also no secret that the public are not yet convinced about sharing their health data with pharmaceutical companies. For people to share their data, they need to know what is going to be shared, how it’s going to be used, and for what benefit and outcome. Increased transparency within the pharmaceutical industry is always highlighted as the solution, but this isn’t the job of the industry alone.

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus how important the long-term sustainability and resilience of health systems is, and how that cannot happen without the involvement of many different actors, including pharmaceutical companies. Although it may take patience and compromise to get there, moving beyond the historic transaction-based relationship between pharmaceutical companies and health systems to demonstrate partnership and best practice – with all the health data stakeholders ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ on the benefits may begin to shift the dial.Purpose-driven communications

Although pharmaceutical companies have been in the mainstream news more than ever, the nature of coverage about them hasn’t really changed. It’s still mostly about their academic research partners when it’s good news, and the pharmaceutical company front and centre in bad news. However, the public’s perception of the reporting has changed.

One of the reasons communicating with the public has been successful during the pandemic is because pharmaceutical companies have been telling them what they want to hear – communication has been relatable, relevant, and timely – and driven by purpose.

The other thing aiding pharmaceutical reputation is that helpfully, there’s another “bad guy” in town – COVID-19. When the acute threat of COVID-19 diminishes, the media will search for other villains. The causes we support, in The Networked Age, are those that allow us to oppose someone. The sector needs to think about how to frame its communications in relations to global health challenges and make sure it continues to be positioned as collaborating for the greater good. After all, COVID is just one of many ‘bad guys’ the industry helps to fight, day-in and day-out.

Purpose, powerfully articulated, can create a competitive advantage – especially as society becomes more polarised, something which has been demonstrated wholeheartedly throughout the pandemic. Pharmaceutical sector communications succeeded during this period because it was based on community – focused on togetherness, fairness and shared interests and experiences. As we move forward, the sector needs to make sure it knows its audience, and designs campaigns and narratives which resonate.

There are many other issues – from the health impacts of climate change to the shared challenge of dementia – which could hugely benefit from what will undoubtedly become known as the ‘COVID approach’. The pharmaceutical industry has in – in so many ways – always been trailblazing. It needs to demonstrate that it continues to lead the way in working for good and showing a willingness to work in partnership with Government, with health systems and with patients.