May 4, 2016 edition of the ‘MIT Technology Review’ published an interesting article carrying the headline, “The World’s Most Expensive Medicine Is a Bust”.
The obvious question that floats at the top of mind: What is this most expensive drug in the pharma history, and why has it failed commercially, despite being a product of disruptive innovation and a marvel that stands out in the space of contemporary drug innovation?
The product is called Glybera (alipogene tiparvovec). It heralded the dawn of the “first gene therapy” in the Western world, whose approval helped ignite an explosion of investment and excitement around treatments that correct DNA, as the MIT article said.
Glybera promises to cure rare inherited diseases with one-time repairs to a person’s DNA. A single dose of gene therapy can change the genetic instructions inside a person’s cells in ways that last many years, or even a lifetime.
Interestingly, even with this unprecedented product offering, the product has become a commercial flop, due to its staggering million-dollar price tag, which very few patients can afford.
Is this an extreme example of price-value relationship for a new breakthrough pharma product? Yes, of course! Nevertheless, it makes us ponder on some key fundamentals, afresh, such as:
- The core purpose of drug innovation
- The price-value relationship of even breakthrough drugs
The proper understanding of these points comprehensively, especially the above two fundamentals, would enable the drug companies to achieve both, the core purpose of intricate drug innovation initiatives, and also making these medicines commercially successful with increased access to patients, through innovative ‘value delivery’ mechanisms.
I believe, the pharmaceutical industry is now at the threshold of a paradigm shift. The new paradigm would signal a metamorphosis in the price-value equations for all drugs, mostly due to changing socio-political environment, across the world, as we have started witnessing in the topmost free economy of the world – the United States.
Pharma business is a ‘value delivery system’:
Way back in June 2000, an article published in ‘McKinsey Quarterly’ on delivering value to the customers, deliberated on a 1988 paper of Michael J. Lanning and Edward G. Michaels. The study combines the value-maps developed in the price-value models with the idea of the “business system,” which was introduced in 1980.
The paper titled, “A business is a value delivery system,” emphasizes the importance of a clear, well-articulated “value proposition” for each targeted market segment. This means a simple statement of the benefits that the company intends to provide to each segment, along with the approximate price the company will charge each segment for those benefits.
Looking at this concept in pharma perspective:
Keeping the above paper in perspective, when we look at the pharma value delivery system, besides the key benefits that a drug offers, one of the most critical value parameter continues to be the financial value.
The healthcare value chain, across the world, has started sharpening its focus on the drug cost today, more than ever before. This is primarily based on the differential value that a drug offers as compared to its closest alternatives. We may like it or not, it is happening irrespective of, whether the drug in question is a breakthrough innovation, or an off-patent high-priced generic medicine.
As I said before, not just in India, the affordability of health care in general, and medicines in particular, is rapidly emerging as a key concern for all developed and the developing nations, including the United States.
Thus, even after careful consideration of all novel product’s benefits and the costs associated with these, the stakeholders’ focus is getting sharper on the overall financial value of the product offerings to the patients. This is reality, and can’t just be wished away by any measure of powerful and expensive advocacy campaigns, together with clever media management.
The drug companies may continue to crib about it, but this will possibly lead them nowhere, in the long term. Instead, they would require to search for a workable win-win and level headed solution, for this most fundamental business issue.
Understanding the evolving paradigm:
We are fast arriving at this new paradigm. There, the financial value of a drug, in the ‘value delivery system’ of pharma marketing, would occupy the center stage. The drug companies would need to arrive at this financial value, not just by understanding the professional mindset of the doctors and taking them on board somehow, but by properly understanding what would the majority of stakeholders want to pay for a new drug, and then perhaps work backwards to translate that finding into reality.
Its successful application would soon assume a pivotal role in the pharma value delivery system. A company may contemplate pricing a drug high, limiting its access to a few rich, and still succeed in making its cash register ringing, such as, some new hepatitis C or cancer drugs. Nonetheless, this could ultimately make their overall business socio-politically too vulnerable, and may not be sustainable either, in the long run.
The same old and current approach does not create a wholesome value for a new drug to most of the customers, despite the company having a state of art ‘value delivery platform’, for unleashing a dazzling marketing blitzkrieg.
The pharma marketing strategy remains unchanged and stale:
At a time, when a paradigm shift is taking place, especially in the way the entire world views at the price-value equation of a new drug, the overall strategic approach of the pharma marketers, as I see it, still remains in the old paradigm, with its roots firmly entrenched there.
I think it so, because the traditional pharma marketing has always been a unilateral communication process, predominantly involving the doctors, and trying to fathom their needs, wants and professional mindset.
Accordingly, the product value delivery process for the doctors, with or without the medical representatives, is basically woven around those needs, wants and mindsets of the target doctors. It, by and large, continues even today, with some cosmetic changes in tools and formats here or there.
Therefore, when the basic marketing and communication process aims at effectively delivering the value of drugs, let us discuss briefly what does the core value of a drug mean?
The value of a drug:
For this purpose, I reckon, it would be prudent to avoid an ethereal approach to arrive at the financial value of a drug, such as, what is the cost of a life, as often raised by many pharma players. A practical approach to resolve this issue would benefit all, in every way.
Without going much into the core purpose of pharma innovation, usually the drug companies define the value of a medicine based on what they think about its attributes. Accordingly, respective players arrive at its financial value, that the patients or the payers must pay for, if they want to have an access to it.
Usually not many independent studies are conducted by the drug companies to ascertain how much the majority of stakeholders, including the governments, payers and patients, would want to willingly pay for a new drug, after well considering its value offerings.
The ever increasing, and virtually obsessed focus on drug ‘innovation’, while justifying the high financial value of a medicine for the patients, also restricts competition, especially for newer ones. For most of the patients this situation is a double whammy.
Additionally, the consolidation process within the industry is also fuelling this situation further. The virtual monopoly of a few companies with some new drugs, in key therapy segments, such as, diabetes, cancer, vaccines and HIV, is restricting the overall competitive environment. This would continue.
A September 24, 2014 Article, published in the ‘Insight’ of Bain & Company on the throws some light on the subject. It says, “over the past 20 years, and especially since 2000, building leadership in a category has become a crucial route to success in pharma. Seven of our 10 leading value creators, including Roche in oncology and Novo Nordisk in diabetes care, generated at least 50 percent of their revenues from one therapeutic area or primary care. In two cases – Biogen Idec in neurology and Celgene in oncology – more than 90 percent of revenues came from a single therapeutic area.”
As I said, this process is expected to continue, it is necessary for the drug companies, governments, other payers and the patients understand the new paradigm, and act accordingly to address this issue to protect mutual benefit.
If it does not happen, the evolving socio-political environment, across the world, would occupy the driver’s seat to navigate through this complexity, in the healthcare space in general and pharma in particular, safeguarding the patients’ health interest.
The core issue:
In the prevailing scenario, the core issue that gets reinforced, yet again, as raised by many, including the World Health Organization (WHO), is the growing inherent conflict between predominantly the profit driven business goals of the pharma players, and the public health interest of a nation.
Possibly for this reason, Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), at a briefing to discuss the Ebola outbreak in West Africa at the UN Foundation in Washington on September 3, 2014 said:
“Big Pharma’s greed for profits, not lack of funding, delaying Ebola treatment development.”
Many countries are now seriously striving to arrive at a middle path to resolve this perennial conflict, India included. The drug companies may wish to take note of it.
I discussed this issue in an article published in this Website titled, “Is The Core Purpose of Pharma Business Beyond Profit Making?” on November 10, 2014.
As the above ‘McKinsey Quarterly’ paper articulated, the strength of the buying proposition for any customer is a function of the product value minus the price. In other words, the ‘surplus value’ that the customer will enjoy once that product is paid for. As the paper clarified, the “value” in a price-value map will necessarily be informed guesses, though after well-considering multiple variables.
Delivering more of this ‘surplus value’ to patients, willy-nilly, would soon be the name of the game, especially for the winners in both the global and local pharma industry.
In the entire drug sector, including India, this ‘price-value model’ could help a pharma company ascertain the sustainability of its competitive position, well considering the stakeholders’ perspective, and accordingly take the right business decision.
Thus, proper understanding of the ‘surplus value model’ while pricing a drug, and its immaculate execution through state of the art marketing and communication strategies, will separate the men from the boys, for sustained excellence in the pharma business.
Sans understanding of this ‘price-value model’, which is so important in the evolving new paradigm of a pharma value delivery system, a pharma player would risk getting caught in a tough headwind, especially with new high-priced products. This situation could, in turn, jeopardize its long term success, and even erode the well-earned company reputation, in tandem, at times mercilessly.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.