Executives from McKesson and Cardinal Health discuss the shift toward targeted medicines, wholesalers’ role in the opioid crisis, and current and future partnerships.


There has been a shift in the market toward targeted medicines. Some say a tsunami of specialty meds, such as cell and gene therapies, is on the way.

At the same time, the site of care is shifting away from the facility and toward the home. What’s been the biggest impact of these trends on drug distributors such as McKesson?

It’s an exciting time as medical innovation propels us toward more personalized treatment options. For McKesson, it’s really shifted the way we think about our customers, and in turn, the solutions we provide to connect patients to these life-changing therapies.

For the life sciences industry, this shift from small molecule oral solids to more complex, targeted therapies presents new challenges: How do we reach the right patients? What’s the best approach to streamline access? What kind of support do patients need throughout treatment?

We want to understand our customers’ needs and evolve our solutions to provide greater value to our pharma and biotech customers, and ultimately to the healthcare system as a whole.

While hospitals and community-based practices remain foundational to care, home health is an important part of the future. For patients managing complex and chronic conditions, we’re focused on solutions that, where appropriate, provide them with the support they need to achieve the best possible outcomes from the comfort of their own homes.

What marketing levers are you pulling to manage corporate reputation and help others understand the important role you play?

Our corporate reputation in the market is bolstered by our customer-first mentality. With a 185-year history in the pharmaceutical space, we’re bullish when it comes to protecting and advancing our brand equity. We invest in making sure we’re getting in front of the right stakeholders consistently via both digital and traditional channels with specific, relevant solutions and insights that can help them navigate the evolving environment.

Our customers view McKesson not only as a broad thought leader in those arenas of healthcare that matter most to their business, but also as a hands-on trusted adviser around their specific business goals.

What is the wholesaler industry, and your company, doing in response to the public outcry that these healthcare organizations may have contributed to the opioid crisis?

McKesson delivers life-saving medicines to millions of Americans each day. As a company, we’re deeply concerned by the impact the opioid epidemic is having on families and communities across our nation. And we’re committed to engaging with all who share our dedication to acting with urgency and working together to end this national crisis.

We maintain — and continuously enhance — strong programs designed to detect and prevent opioid diversion within the pharmaceutical supply chain. We only distribute controlled substances, including opioids, to DEA-registered and state-licensed pharmacies. For many years, sales of controlled substances ordered by pharmacies in the U.S. have been reported to the Drug Enforcement Administration for its internal database.

We are working with others to advance a series of company initiatives focused on helping to address the opioid epidemic, offering thoughtful public policy recommendations — including the Prescription Safety-Alert System technology proposal — and supporting innovative programs and partnerships we believe can have a meaningful impact on this challenging issue. We’ve also contributed $100 million to the Foundation for Opioid Response Efforts, a nonprofit dedicated to combating the opioid crisis in the U.S.

Who are your biggest customers, and what tips can you offer biotech or pharma companies wishing to partner with you?

This is a question I like to answer because it highlights why our role within the pharmaceutical landscape is so important. Our customers include hospitals and health systems, national retail and community pharmacies, specialty provider clinics, and life sciences organizations. It’s through this broad and diverse reach that we deeply understand challenges across the healthcare system from every angle and bring the right teams together to deliver impactful solutions.

For any organization interested in working with McKesson, I’d encourage them to use their preferred channel to connect with us. A simple conversation around their needs and challenges is a great way to get started.

What partnerships with other entities in the healthcare ecosystem are you considering over the next nine months?

We’re constantly looking for new ways to add value to our customers, which is why we invest and partner with other stakeholders. We seek partnerships with companies who maintain advancing patient care as a focus, because the patient is truly at the center of everything we do.

One way we invest with other stakeholders is through McKesson Ventures, our venture capital arm. McKesson Ventures helps innovators build and scale businesses that support an easier-to-navigate, more effective and efficient healthcare delivery system for key stakeholders on all sides of the healthcare economy.

What important initiatives on the marcomms front will you be rolling out in the next nine months?

Industry events are an important part of how we connect with our customers and stay attuned to their needs.

Our marcomms and events teams play a critical role in seamlessly coordinating our presence at these events and setting the stage for sales and account teams to have meaningful, productive customer interactions.

Because the scope of our business is so broad, we’ve made significant investments to ensure we curate experiences that are relevant and impactful for the specific markets they serve across the patient journey, from cancer care to retail pharmacy. Over the next nine months, this will be one of many important initiatives led by our marcomms team.  

Recruiting for clinical trials has become a major challenge for the industry, especially in the rare disease area. What role can distributors play in boosting awareness and finding volunteers? Can you offer a recent example/case study?

Through U.S. Oncology Research, which is supported by McKesson, we leverage our data resources to identify where patients are seen, giving practices the visibility they need to determine whether to secure specific clinical trials.

One recruitment model we use is the Selected Trials for Accelerated Rollout (STAR) method. This program opens and activates clinical trials quickly across all cancer centers participating in U.S. Oncology Research. When a potential STAR trial patient is identified at a facility, the practice is trained on the details of the trial, and the study is opened within a two-week time frame at the location where the patient will be treated.

The work we do here has broad impact — U.S. Oncology Research is one of the largest community-based oncology research programs in the U.S. with more than 1,000 investigators and 155 locations. Over 1,600 clinical trials have been conducted within U.S. Oncology Research with more than 76,000 patients enrolled. It has played a role in more than 75 FDA-approved cancer therapies, which represents about one-third of all cancer therapies approved by the FDA to date.


There has been a shift in the market toward targeted medicines. Some say a tsunami of specialty meds, such as cell and gene therapies, is on the way.

At the same time, the site of care is shifting away from the facility and toward the home. What’s been the biggest impact of these trends on drug distributors such as Cardinal?

As healthcare therapies are becoming more targeted, developing an effective channel plan and distribution strategy has become far more complex. A high-value, temperature-controlled, limited distribution specialty product will not only require a different distribution channel than a generic primary care product, it will also require a more high-touch approach with a focus on traceability and on-time delivery.

For Cardinal Health, understanding the growing demand for specialty drug distribution has led to continued investment in infrastructure, technology, and people who can address the unique needs of our specialty customers.

What marketing levers are you pulling to manage corporate reputation and help others understand the important role you play?

While Cardinal Health is known primarily for its distribution capabilities, we’ve tried to help the industry understand that our value is more than simply moving products from A to B. Increasingly, we’re serving as an adviser and consultant to both manufacturer and provider customers to help them navigate the complexity of the healthcare landscape.

Within the specialty solutions business, we’ve invested in clinical expertise — physicians, nurses, and Ph.D.s — who consult with our customers on everything from regulatory and clinical strategy to changing reimbursement models.

From a marketing perspective, we’ve leveraged this expertise with thought leadership, including manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals, presentations at clinical conferences, and original research publications. Our ability to advise on both the clinical and commercial challenges facing our customers has helped us to be viewed as a strategic partner.

What is the wholesaler industry, and your company, doing in response to the public outcry that these healthcare organizations may have contributed to the opioid crisis?

Cardinal Health cares deeply about the devastation opioid misuse has caused American families and communities and is working to solve this complex national public health crisis.

In partnership with the Ohio State University College of Pharmacy, Cardinal Health Foundation developed Generation Rx, a national prescription education and awareness program. The Cardinal Health Foundation has also awarded over $3 million in grants to more than 70 nonprofit organizations to support local efforts to combat the opioid epidemic across Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Who are your biggest customers, and what tips can you offer biotech or pharma companies wishing to partner with you?

Cardinal Health has an extremely broad customer base that includes 85% of hospitals nationwide and more than 26,000 pharmacies. Within the specialty solutions business, we also work with more than 10,000 physician offices and clinics representing a wide range of therapeutic categories including oncology, rheumatology, nephrology, and gastroenterology, as well as more than 4,000 manufacturers ranging from top 10 pharma companies to emerging biotechs.

Pharma companies who want to work with us should engage us early in the launch and commercial planning process and include us in discussions beyond just distribution. When we collaborate early, we can often help manufacturers overcome barriers to launch or develop strategies that enable them to be more effective or efficient when commercializing their product.

There is a lack of redundancy along the generic pharmaceutical supply chain, leading to drug price increases and shortages, especially on older products that are vulnerable to manufacturing issues or recalls. The FDA has pushed for generic and biosimilar competition, and Civica Rx formed last year to address this weakness. How do you work to mitigate the impact of shortages on health systems and patients?

As a distributor, we do not have control over the amount of product that is available in the supply chain, but we recognize there can be many reasons a manufacturer may experience a shortage, including a scarcity of raw materials, consolidation between manufacturers, changing regulatory requirements, and product recalls.

We are committed to working with our manufacturers to ensure a consistent supply of product to the market. When a supply chain disruption occurs, we collaborate with them to understand the scope of the shortage, how long it is likely to endure, and how we can allocate products to ensure the needs of the market are met.

How have changes in reimbursement for medicines impacted distributors?

In an ever-changing reimbursement landscape, we are continually evaluating how our business needs to adapt. In response to the transition from fee-for-service to value-based reimbursement, Cardinal Health has introduced new tools and solutions to help both provider and biopharma customers improve the quality of care, while effectively managing costs.

As the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services contemplates new models such as the International Pricing Index Model for Medicare Part B Drugs, Cardinal Health is providing input on how costs of Medicare Part B drugs can be lowered, while minimizing disruption to providers or interference with patient access to medicines.

Editor’s note: Wholesaler AmerisourceBergen declined to participate in this article.