This scenario is fictional but far from fanciful. In fact, something like it may be taking place even as you read this. Two dads are talking at their kids' softball game. Or maybe it's two moms dropping off their youngsters at school.
“Did you say you work for a pharmaceutical company?” asks parent #1.
“How does that make you feel? I mean, I've been reading some pretty negative stuff about your industry.”
How such challenged mothers or fathers answer could very well depend on whether or not they've attended one of the PharmaCorps workshops being conducted by PhRMA, the industry's trade association. Those who have not attended might well turn defensive or tongue-tied—or just walk away mumbling. But those who have participated are more likely to answer calmly, factually and persuasively.
According to Ed Belkin, PhRMA's VP for communications & public affairs, and Christian Clymer, senior director, affordability and access, the program was started this year as an effort to enlist pharma employees in providing the public with accurate information. The premise is simple: the trade association's member companies have a total of some 450,000 employees, and all of them should be willing and able to speak up for the industry they work for.
As Belkin explains, “We wanted to put our arms around ways to engage and educate and energize half a million people who are potential spokespersons for the industry. We certainly know that there are people who are critical about the state of healthcare, and we want our people to be armed to be able to respond and to present the facts.”
Adds Clymer, who is director of PharmaCorps, “Every one of those close to half a million people has a compelling story to tell. They work every day to make sure that somebody's life is improved, that somebody's life is saved. More of those stories need to be heard, and PharmaCorps is a great way to help get all of these employees engaged in their communities and thus get the industry's stories out to the public.”
The key to achieving this objective is training—training that not only reinforces knowledge but builds confidence. So far, 18 PhRMA member companies have signed up for the program. “The public's knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry,” Clymer goes on, “is typically an inch deep and a mile wide. The knowledge of our employees, on the other hand, tends to be a mile deep but only an inch wide. What PharmaCorps is designed to do is to extend both of those experiences, so that by talking to our employees they in turn can talk about all the things industry does on behalf of patients.”
This “talking to employees” typically takes place at workshops conducted on site at the cooperating companies. Among the topics being stressed are the way the industry's patient assistance programs help the uninsured obtain essential medicines, the value of prescription medicines in improving the quality of life and how the industry continuously pursues innovation in the treatment of diseases and disabilities. Other workshops deal with Medicare drug benefits, the pros and cons of personal importing of Rx drugs, and the widely discussed issue of drug safety.
The way it works is that PhRMA member companies that see the value of the program invite PharmaCorps to come run employee workshops. As of the end of June, PharmaCorps had conducted some 30 such sessions.
Schering-Plough, by way of example, has held two workshops at two locations. According to Paul Ehrlich, senior manager, legislative affairs, the program “tied in nicely” with the company's own objectives. In an online survey of the staff, the employees expressed an overwhelming desire to know more about the issues facing the industry, and the turnout when the workshops were announced confirmed it. At the larger site, attendance ranged from 100-150, with about 50 at the smaller one.
The topics at these initial sessions (based on the positive feedback of those attending, Schering-Plough plans to schedule more) were the Medicare drug benefit and patient assistance programs—topics that have proved to be the most popular overall. The one on patient assistance programs sets out to explain the problem: that more than 45 million Americans have no health insurance, and that the number continues to grow. The presenters then go on to describe the ways the industry is trying to increase access to medicine and healthcare services by seeing to it that no one goes without essential medication because of the inability to pay. A fact sheet describing the workshops sums up that those attending leave with “an understanding of the issue of the uninsured, and how the industry is a key player in bringing health to Americans.”
A third popular workshop topic is an overview of the value of prescription products, with the objective that those attending:
■ Gain knowledge of how Rx medicines improve patients' lives.
■ Get an overview of recent Rx drug advances and the impact on disease management.
■ Improve their understanding of how drug discovery works.
■ Develop an understanding of the economic value of prescription medicines and how they help to control healthcare costs by reducing the need for emergency room visits, long-term care, or hospitalization.
Workshops might also deal with issues of particular relevance to the sponsoring company or hot topics making headlines in the media, and depending on the topic, the workshops attract researchers, administrative or financial people, sales or manufacturing staff, or a cross-section of all employees.
Schering-Plough scheduled its workshops as lunch-and-learn sessions, but timing, too, is flexible, as is the makeup of the faculty. Schering-Plough decided to have two speakers at each workshop, matching the expertise of a PhRMA rep with that of someone from its own staff. Sometimes, according to Clymer, the presenters are all PhRMA staff; on other occasions they may be supplemented by outside experts, such as a nurse or a researcher.
According to the program's Web site (www.pharmacorps.org), employees who elect to participate become eligible for a recognition program. The basic goal is to make sure those attending leave with greater ease and confidence in talking about their jobs in private conversations, but the payoff for industry goes even further. After attending a workshop, employees have volunteered for speaking engagements, while others have felt encouraged to write letters to their local and regional papers, or to contact elected officials. The common theme is that they're willing to speak up whenever they feel that the industry's story needs to be heard.
“The greatest resource available to the pharmaceutical community,” Clymer sums up, “is its hundreds of thousands of employees working every day to improve our nation's health.”
SIDEBAR: PharmaCorps gives employees the tools to benefit the industry
PhRMA President and CEO Billy Tauzin, commenting on the suc-cess of PharmaCorps, told MM&M: “Every employee makes a difference…But even though our companies improve life for patients here and around the world every day, it is relatively easy for employees to lose sight of the tremendous value our companies deliver to society.
“PharmaCorps was developed to help employees view their work in a broader context and to establish a tangible connection between what they do and the patients they help. By participating in PharmaCorps, they are able to learn about the issues facing our companies and how to respond to critics.
The program is designed to harness employees' pride in what they do and give them the tools they need to start changing the conversation about biopharmaceutical companies and the medicines we make.
“PharmaCorps has reached thousands of employees through its workshops, publications and Web site. PhRMA is committed to expanding the program's reach so that every biopharmaceutical company employee feels empowered to take constructive action in support of our common work.”