Jean-Pierre Garnier: Reshaping the spending debate

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Pharmaceutical companies have not always done a good job of proving their value to the public. The past decade has seen a decline in public opinion, with industry critics charging that pharmaceutical companies weren't doing enough to introduce new medicines, or make their medicines more accessible for all patients. Thankfully, things are changing. 

Today, the pharmaceutical industry is gaining greater recognition for its critical role in improving health, with a remarkable track record of success.

Consider the accomplishment of converting HIV from a death sentence into a manageable condition. HIV patients can now live productive lives—spared from the devastating physical decline, medical expense and horrible suffering that once was inevitable.

Asthma is another success story. We know what happens when patients are promptly diagnosed, prescribed appropriate medications and counseled on how to use them effectively. By keeping these patients out of the emergency room or hospital where costs multiply, we spend healthcare dollars more wisely.

Of course, critics will continue to put the blame on the cost of pharmaceuticals. Yet the debate over how to control healthcare spending offers another opportunity for the pharmaceutical industry to prove its value in helping to prevent disease.

Our current healthcare delivery system is backward. It's more expensive to treat people when they're sick than it is to keep people well.

We need to incentivize the system to help people stay healthy. Simple ideas—reducing co-pays for people who exercise regularly or stop smoking—can go a long way in helping prevent disease.
When people do get sick, they must be able to effectively manage their disease and prevent complications that lead to more expensive treatments and greater suffering. Healthcare intervention must be prompt, and patients must have tools to help keep their disease from worsening.

Because chronic diseases account for about 75% of annual healthcare costs, isn't it obvious where we should be focusing our efforts?

Prevention and appropriate disease management do lower costs and suffering, but that's not enough. We need continued innovation to discover better treatments against disease.

Take Alzheimer's: It costs more than $100 billion a year and causes great suffering for over 4 million people and their families in the US. Some drugs slow the progression of Alzheimer's, but nothing effectively treats it. However, the pharmaceutical industry is working on more than 50 new drugs for this illness.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, delaying onset of this disease by just five years could save $50 billion per year. And better treatments—or better yet, a cure—would dramatically reduce suffering for patients and their families.

The debate over healthcare spending is critical and necessary, not just for the bottom line, but for patients' peace of mind. That debate should begin by asking how we keep people healthy, how we keep them from getting sicker, and how we develop better treatments. What better way to help the system—and prove pharmaceutical industry value to the public—than to keep people as healthy as possible.

Jean-Pierre Garnier, MD, is CEO of GlaxoSmithKline

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