Not too long ago, at Digital Pharma East in Philadelphia, an amazing idea dawned upon me. This happened in the wake of several presentations, including a no-holds-barred, how-did-we-let-it-get-this-bad, in-your-face exploration of recent PR industry blunders (read: Valeant, Turing, and Mylan) by Heartbeat Ideas’ Bill Drummy.
Public opinion of the pharma business is at an all-time low. Along those lines, Bill quipped that we are on par in the public-approval ratings with the tobacco industry. Perfect. They try to kill you; we try to save you. Then came a presentation by an Allergan digital marketing exec, who shared a touching commercial sponsored by several P&G brands (if you haven’t seen it, grab some tissues and watch it here.)
Here’s the idea: What if we set aside our competitive natures, flew in the face of our lawyers’ fears of collusion, and got together as an industry to improve perception? It’s time that we came together and spoke with one voice and one goal: improving public health and highlighting what we do to help people live longer and healthier lives.
I know that PhRMA is supposed to be our collective industry voice. But with all due respect, PhRMA’s focus is speaking on our behalf to the FDA, not generating goodwill among the general public. I bet no one in the general populace knows PhRMA even exists — but they sure as heck know about that goofball Martin Shkreli.
How will this work? Well, there is a cool nonprofit group called the Digital Health Coalition that might be able to help. They do a nice job of uniting the industry under a common goal of finding better ways to communicate with our customers and consumers in the digital world. There are also a million agencies that would love this task — I’m sure Publicis or Saatchi would be delighted to own that work.
So how do we do it? How about a PSA on how we’re living longer and better because of the innovations in pharma?
My grandparents passed away in their 50s and 60s from diseases that could easily be managed today with diet, exercise, and medication. My dad and his brothers are a great example; they’re all living well into their 80s and beyond.
Perhaps we create a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting science in our schools — funded, managed, and promoted by the industry? How about a program designed to make sure short-dated samples left on pallets in our warehouses get to the people who cannot afford them? Instead of a “food pantry,” it’d be a “medicine cabinet.” There must be a million more ways for us to come together as an industry and change perception.
We’ll most likely have to absorb a few blows in the process, which I know we don’t like to do — no one does. We’ll be reminded once anew that the cost of prescription medications is out of reach for many people who need them. Most companies have some mechanism in place for those in need, but there’s a lot of red tape and many who still cannot get access.
At the same time, there can’t be trust without transparency. The general public is not privy to how drug prices are assigned, nor do they understand how much it costs to develop a drug and bring it to market. It’s time to have an open discussion, even if we cannot answer every question.
And lastly, healthy literacy (or the lack thereof) is woefully undermining positive health outcomes. It’s time that we call out the FDA on mandating communication requirements that often end up alienating patients. We frighten rather than inform, cover our butts rather than support, and confuse rather than encourage.
How anyone can truly be patient-centric with a black box warning label is beyond me. Package inserts aren’t helping, for that matter, especially when the language used is well above our nation’s average reading level. If we came together as an industry and demanded communications in plain English (read Thomas Goetz’s brilliant perspective in his book The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Era of Personalized Medicine), it would go a long way toward repairing public opinion of the business.
We learned a lot in our recent presidential election about anger and mistrust. It’s time to come together as a stronger version of ourselves. Who’s with me?
Zoe Dunn is co-founder and principal of Hale Advisors.