The past few years have presented a microcosm of good and bad ethics in pharma. On one hand are a slew of marketing, pricing, and other slip-ups. On the other, we’ve seen CEOs and companies take principled stands, including Ken Frazier’s exit from President Donald Trump’s manufacturing council over the latter’s response to the Charlottesville protests, and Sanofi’s “racism is not a known side effect” tweet in response to Roseanne Barr’s blaming “Ambien tweeting” for her mocking of a former aide to President Barack Obama.

These execs and companies may not have had full solutions to the problems on which they took those stands, but they showed that individual actions do matter and how being bold can help secure authentic voice. Authenticity, not just transparency, is somewhat atypical in this industry.  

For health communicators, pharma executives, scientists, physicians, providers, and payers interested in learning how to calibrate their own ethical compass, a book expected to be released in November, Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, is one to place at the top of our reading lists. Witness is a moral education – “a primer on educating against indifference, on the urgency of memory and individual responsibility.”  

It is not a business book; better, it is a guide for ethical behavior and should instill courage in the reader to make tough, necessary decisions.  

Never has our industry been as chastised as it is today; never have so many questioned its motives. By recounting Wiesel’s ethical and moral approach to teaching, Witness reminds us that we need to reconnect with our shared passion to serve humanity. That includes making our medicines accessible to the many who require them and remembering that all people deserve to benefit from the best of our bold ideas.

This book will not provide a “how to”; rather, it helps us find the answers within ourselves. Though we may have been wounded or become guarded as a result of constant sparring, Wiesel’s approach to teaching, advocacy, and life challenges us to find a way toward the ethical answers.

While we represent shareholder and employee interests, and must focus on physician prescribers and payer priorities, we also represent patients as individuals with health concerns. Witness reminds us that we, too, are people – people with a sense of right and wrong – and that we must see ourselves in the faces of those patients whom we ultimately serve.

The power of a person

It’s been two years since Elie Wiesel departed. Many of us remain in disbelief that he is no longer here, rallying nations and leaders to remember his mantra, “One person of integrity can make a difference.”

His was a voice of leadership: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, advisor to presidents, and author of more than 40 books, including the bestseller Night, his Holocaust memoir now read in classrooms around the world.  

This biography on Wiesel shares, for the first time, a largely hidden aspect of this great person’s life – his passion to teach. Witness offers the first-hand account of Wiesel’s protégé and friend Dr. Ariel Burger, who first met Wiesel when he was 15 years old, became his student at Boston University, and continued as his PhD candidate and teaching assistant.

Burger chronicles his mentor’s intimate thoughts and approach to teaching during two decades. Through Burger’s storytelling and unique perspective, we share in, and reap the benefits of, Wiesel’s wisdom in the heretofore largely unknown context of ethics teacher.

For an industry hungry for ethical role models who transcend the strictures of a fragmented health system, Burger’s book is extremely timely. Some of us were privileged to work side-by-side with Elie as part of the Galien Foundation Advisory Board, where he served as a very active honorary chair.

He saw medical innovation as relief from one of the world’s great oppressors – disease. As a guide and friend, we saw his passion for medicine as an inspiration and powerful motivator.  

He was committed to celebrating the scientists dedicated to helping and healing others, and time and again, showed a sincere and irrepressible desire to recognize their courage to invent. He knew that researchers must press forward, believing that since disease …does not take a vacation…neither can we.”

Connecting health and justice

Beyond his writings, Wiesel’s influence on the cause of social justice and as an ethical pillar for the voiceless – including those with illnesses where cures were needed urgently – continues to be felt. His teachings and personal commitment helped spark a pledge on industry’s part to save and improve lives.  

Elie called upon us to step forward, saying: “Once you bring life into the world, you must protect it. We must protect it by changing the world.”  

I remember a conversation in which Elie discussed the writing process with my then-teenaged daughter. He counseled: “I imagine myself inside my characters – they become me, and I become them.”  

This book reinforces Wiesel’s timeless societal relevance: he was able to use his own voice to serve as the voice of those who too often suffered in silence.  

Rather than wait passively to see which industry counterparts will leap first, Burger invites us to be active participants in the classroom of one of the world’s great advocates for justice and humanity.  By allowing us a glimpse into how Wiesel transcended the terrors of the concentration camps to forgive – not forget – and move forward in life, Burger provides a rare opportunity to connect with a moral and ethical true north, as he writes in the book:  

“First courage. Our natural tendency is to avoid confrontation, and this can lead to a politeness that, for the sake of learning, must be challenged. This is why I encourage you to question me, to question one another, and to question your own assumptions.”

Lessons for healthcare execs

The biopharmaceutical, diagnostic and health/tech industries are at the threshold of inventing amazing medicines and revolutionary technologies – turning the tables on once-deadly, non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and cancers, and arresting infectious diseases like Ebola. People facing health challenges who confront a range of psychological and physical burdens may hopefully one day move on with their lives.  

That is why we must heed another powerful lesson Wiesel taught: remember the struggle of people who are still in the trenches. Survivors will not forget the difficult trek from illness to health. People who have triumphed over illness, with our help, can turn these difficult experiences into something good – support for others facing a similar, difficult journey. Wiesel believed that: “Illness may diminish me, but it will not destroy me.” This is why people with illnesses and those that love them flock to advocacy groups – to question, to learn and to hope.

And therein lie some takeaways for health practitioners and communicators. First, in exposing the mindset of survivorship at a time when we are wrestling deadly illnesses to the ground, we can contribute much to helping people with these diagnoses to return to the lives they aspire to pursue, even if cures remain on the horizon.

In addition, we must retain our empathy – as marketers, physicians and advocates – to see those we treat not just as patients (or worse, bundles of symptoms or tumor types), but instead as people like us.

Finally, we must summon the same energy that we call upon to conquer illness to make those medicines more accessible. By authentically addressing these challenges, we call upon the courage of ideas and action.

Burger captures Wiesel’s introspection around his experience surviving heart disease (Elie recorded feelings about his sudden bypass surgery in the book Open Heart): “When two people come together to listen, to learn from each other, there is hope…Hope is a gift we give to one another.” Medical invention is the hope that people with health urgencies need. Medical invention is our industry’s finest achievement and the gift we offer humanity.

Looking at our current environment, our wise decisions and stumbles, it is clear that we, too, need an ethical role model.  Elie Wiesel – professor, Nobel Laureate, survivor, mentor, champion for justice – advocated for biopharmaceutical innovation that can improve the human condition.  

He was the voice of those needing a courageous advocate.  He was a person and a patient. He was also a masterful teacher, and Burger reminds us that it is now our task to continue his work of listening, learning and healing – and teaching the next generation.

Gil Bashe is managing partner, global health, FINN Partners