Hey Pharma—Chin Up, Fella!

This is not a pep talk—but, well, it's kind of a pep talk.

A few months ago, when reporting MM&M's Outlook 2016 story on policy changes, I spoke with an esteemed industry consultant about the sorry state of pharma's public profile. In the wake of the Turing and Valeant body blows, I asked him to reassess the usual balms for perception resuscitation—that pharma needs to “tell its story, because it has a wonderful story to tell,” that it needs to “walk the public through the process by which a pharma company prices its super-helpful products.”

He wasn't hearing it. “All that stuff about R&D and the impossibility of getting a product to market and ‘we help people and they hate us'—I hear that and I shut off,” he said. 

Asked for a new line of reasoning, he paused. “I always think of the Wilsonian notion of America as the world's policeman, because we're kind of the world's pharmacy in a way. Because of this market-based pricing we have, almost uniquely in the world, we are subsidizing drug development for everybody else. Is that fair? Not really. Does somebody have to do it? Probably.”

Now there's a tough sell: Weaving a we're-subsidizing- the-world's-welfare narrative would require lots of words and charts, many more than some constituencies want to hear (or have the perceptual bandwidth to assimilate and grasp) during a campaign year.

That said, what's the harm in trying? The traditional line of attack is genuine and requires little in the way of spin—yet still, every time a Turing rears its head, it gets blown back in small and indigestible pieces. Simply put, that reasoning hasn't worked. To expect it to suddenly catch on suggests a naïveté and reliance on wishful thinking that have no place in an industry populated by people who are very, very good at their jobs.

My bold solution, proposed from the discomfort of a too-low office chair in a cubicle far from pharma or policy ground zero: Stop apologizing. Stop pushing lowest-common-denominator arguments on audiences that have shown little willingness to accept them. Call out the dishonesty in the payer community. Call out the bad actors within your own community. The Biotechnology Industry Organization gave Turing the boot—vocally—and returned its dues payments. How about more statements of that kind?

By most rational measures, healthcare and pharma do more good than the movie business or the real estate industry. We're not the bad guys. Until everybody stops acting like we've done something wrong, we're doomed to occupy the lowest-of-the-low tier alongside the oil/gas industry and—gasp!—the federal government.

Larry Dobrow is senior editor at MM&M.