Pharma faces its 'oh, shit' moment

Dr. Gautam Gulati, founder and CEO of Unusual, gave the keynote address at the MM&M Transforming Healthcare conference on Monday in New York City. Photo credit: Erica Berger

The pharmaceutical industry is being outpaced by its own rate of innovation, a challenge that has created a complex set of issues that range from pricing criticism to a lack of empathy for the patient, says Dr. Gautam Gulati, founder and CEO of Unusual.

“We're having an ‘Oh, shit' moment,” he said at the MM&M Transforming Healthcare conference on Monday in New York City, where he delivered the keynote address.

Gulati, former chief medical officer and head of product innovation for Physicians Interactive and founder of Unusual, a storytelling consultancy, also described how the traditional pharma mindset conflicts with a world that is rapidly becoming individualized and demanding of better healthcare service and products.

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“The pace of innovation in the market is far exceeding our capacity to keep up,” he said. “That's why it's so difficult to go beyond the pill.”

When he was a medical student in the 1990s, Gulati's first patient was an individual with dementia. At the time, he believed his role was to treat the symptoms of a disease and to then provide the appropriate medication. “We assign labels” like agitated anxious, and disoriented, he said.

Then his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and Gulati's view changed. He realized that he had tried to manage his father's disease by pulling him into his own reality, rather than attempting to put himself in his father's shoes. “I would offer an apology to every patient I've treated,” he said.

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This is why he believes that drugmakers or other healthcare players should re-evaluate old mindsets — those that focus on products rather than experiences — and consider new ways of doing things. This is more crucial than ever before, especially as companies weigh issues including  a challenging pipeline, complex new products, and a political environment increasingly critical of its longstanding pricing and marketing practices.

Gulati's argument even touched on the decidedly non-pharma topic of burrito-making. He told the story of an irate customer who had penned a critical account of what happens when the maker of a burrito does not incorporate the ingredients lengthwise. (Essentially, the diner gets one bite of guacamole and not much more.) Burritos built with layers, on the other hand, allow for different ingredients in every bite. That small shift in process creates a better burrito — and a better experience for the customer.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Gulati. He was a medical student in the 1990s.