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In the Wake of COVID-19, What Pharma Might Learn from Coca-Cola

August 13, 2020

Consumers are as Valuable as Physicians – Pharma Needs to Treat Them the Same Way

The implicit promise of brands pervades almost every sector where consumers vote with their wallets. From Microsoft to Procter & Gamble to Nike, the best consumer brands engage consumers in developing markets through product identity, core price structure and brand value. Whether delivered in the form of soft drink, water, or juice, across 200 countries, with 500 brands from Classic Coke to Dasani to Zico coconut water, Coca Cola has one, well-recognized vision: providing refreshment in body and spirit.

The life science industry likewise has a clear value proposition: to sustain and save lives. Drug discovery is a herculean effort that marshals the talents and aspirations of medical researchers and inventors to improve the lives of people who face illnesses, whether infectious diseases or imminently life-threatening, non-communicable conditions. It’s an incredibly worthy pursuit — as important as quenching thirst —  and one that it seems consumers would be eager to cheer on.

And yet, they don’t.

What has gone so wrong? Why is an industry so dedicated to doing good so disdained by those whom it was created to help? 

One part of the diagnosis is apparent. While the lifesaving sector’s relationships with physicians, payers and policymakers are largely transactional — centered around dollars and cents, and policy of access — with consumers, it made itself mysterious. It distanced itself from the very people it ultimately seeks to help. This disconnect has proven disastrous.

The result is the pharmaceutical sector’s natural allies — people seeking to be healed — feel forgotten, an afterthought. For decades, they have been described in third-party and regulatory terms as “numbers,” “subjects,” “participants” and, at best, “patients.” Rarely are people with health needs accorded the same respect that consumer-goods product developers give to people who buy premium sneakers or watches. Just as the most successful consumer brands see their customers as partners in identifying needs and developing and bringing products to market, it’s long overdue that biopharma leaders should see consumers as full-fledged equals in the effort to bring new medications to the very people who need them the most.

Craig Lipset, former head of Pfizer Clinical Innovation and now a global clinical-trial innovator and advocate for decentralized trials, remarked during a recent conversation, We have to stop thinking about inviting patients to the research and development table. It’s their table!” In keeping with that thought, the pharma industry’s connection to people with health needs should be far more closely aligned than that of marketers of popular retail brands and consumers. After all, people with a diagnosis have the most skin in the game when it comes to biomedical and medical technology innovation. They are looking to return to health or remain alive.

It’s true that the world of therapeutic branding is far more complex than marketing smartphones or fair-trade coffee. The health sector is so fragmented it seems almost impossible to piece together; regulatory approvals to market are determined nation-by-nation, identical drug molecules are sold under multiple brand names, free-market economy and therapeutic price-referencing systems uncomfortably coexist, and meanwhile, a confusing web of private- and public-payer systems play off each other like arbitrage. There is good reason why the pricing of medical products is complex; even chief executives of health companies are baffled by this “Matrix”-like science-fiction system that has taken on a life of its own.

That’s further distancing drug companies from the patients whom they ostensibly serve. In their Harvard Business Review article, “Giving Patients an Active Role in Their Health Care”, Len Schlesinger and John Fox write:

“As payment and care delivery models shift in the United States from episodic, fee-for-service care toward population health and value-based reimbursement, health care leaders are focused more than ever on patient engagement as a key to driving down costs and improving outcomes. And yet, as so many of us know who have attempted to manage our own care or tend to sick family members, the U.S. health care system rarely feels like it’s been set up to help us succeed.”

If biopharma is to build real brand connections, the industry needs to completely rethink its consumer relationships.

It’s time for drug companies to relate directly to the people who need their inventions the most. Yes, the system is fragmented and, yes, it will remain so for some time; that’s indisputable. But it’s clear that the only way for health brands to achieve their full therapeutic and market potential is for the ecosystem to come together around the consumer.

This is not a call to ramp-up direct-to-consumer advertising. Rather, the life science industry must acknowledge that its current arm’s-length, hesitant approach to consumer connections no longer serves anyone’s best interests, and hasn’t for some time.

Always a visionary in building cultures and companies, Fred Hassan, now director of Healthcare at private-equity giant Warburg Pincus, said 20 years ago as CEO of Pharmacia:

“Today, we need great peripheral vision to know what is going on with all our different audiences. Our new marketers have to understand that, beside half a million doctors in the United States, they also have to think about the hundred million households as potential marketing targets.”

That time to refocus is now. COVID-19, which has caused great hardship, is also widening the doorway to change. The biotech and medical technology sectors can move toward their admittedly bleak future, status quo, or they can look to make a direct connection to consumers. Decision-makers must be champions for enlisting the consumer as a partner in improving the human condition early in the invention process.

Things are changing in the regulatory environment. In confronting COVID-19, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has collapsed the supply chain of information between the health professional and consumer, making care more accessible and convenient. The life science industry should see those regulatory clues as green lights for industry change.

What changes could be considered immediately? Here are three:

1. Advance Decentralized Clinical Trials: Make trials accessible and easier to enroll in for consumers with health urgencies, using telehealth and remote in-home evaluation processes. If people are no longer sitting in waiting rooms for their doctors, people needing to enroll in clinical trials should not have to drive miles or wait hours for screening or diagnostic checks to see if they qualify; instead, this can be done using smart and remote technologies and wearables. Look to thought leaders such as Dr. Amir Kalali, founder and curator of the CNS Summit, to champion industry-wide thinking on how pharma, academic medical centers and contract research organizations can collaborate and redesign the clinical trial process to be people-friendly.

2. Engage Consumer Opinion Leaders: Just as pharmaceutical companies engage and reimburse key opinion leaders for their time to help map-out clinical trial design and protocols, people with health concerns who might benefit from that very research should be at the table much earlier —– and paid as consultants to industry. The patient-advocacy community in many disease categories has national leaders able to add insight to design and patient-recruitment processes. Time saved adds time to the patent life of a molecule and market exclusivity. Inclusion of patient leaders in the market-development process can be a win-win partnership.

3. Speak as Patient Advocates: Deliver one message to providers, payers, policymakers, and, yes, patients. Customize that message, but take care not to contradict what you have said to the professional community when speaking with consumers. There is good reason why WebMD attracts some 60 million unique visitors to its vetted medical information site each month; consumers are seeking out credible information sources. As TED founder Richard Saul Wurman wrote in his book “Information Anxiety,” too much information can overwhelm. At the same time, pharma must recognize there is no such thing as privileged information when someone’s survival is at stake. Biopharma must come to terms with the FDA, finding new calibration between pre-approval promotion and freedom of information. And, just as a company’s shareholders have the right to know the progress of a pipeline, so, too, do people facing a long course of illness and their advocacy organizations deserve to know what is on the clinical horizon — good and bad.

For consumers to be embraced as full-fledged partners in the life-science discovery-and-access-to-care journey, they must be given timely information to understand why a product is important to their wellbeing while it is being studied, developed, and brought to market. The people who have the most to gain from drug discovery are often the last to learn about developments that impact them directly, and they are seldom, if ever, asked to add their counsel as an equal voice when a drug they need is developed, or as it advances through the regulatory process. People who face illness or serve as caregivers have the biggest stake in successful drug development; they deserve to be treated as partners and influencers in the journey to improve their health and sustain their lives – a mission that is always refreshing.

TAGS: Health

POSTED BY: Gil Bashe

Gil Bashe