Reputation is one of the most fundamental requirements for long-term sustainability of any business, without facing too much of avoidable distraction, or even a tough headwind from any hostile business environment. This fact is, of course, no-brainer. We all know it, yet continue faltering – often not so very infrequently.
Before proceeding further, let me recapitulate, how has the Oxford Dictionary defined reputation? It says, reputation is ‘the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something.’ Or in other words, it is ‘a widespread belief that someone or something has a particular characteristic.’
The subsequent logical question then arises – how to gain reputation? Again, this was very aptly captured long ago by none other than Socrates, when he said: ‘The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.’
Taking a leaf from this quote, in today’s article, I shall focus on whether pharma is making enough endeavor to be what it desires to appear in the eyes of its stakeholders, and the public at large. If not, what are the ways forward.
Not all of it is pharma’s own creation:
The host of reasons for pharma’s adverse public image, may not necessarily be its own creation. Some of these could well be lying miles away from its operational domain. For example, articles such as, what appeared on July 7, 2017 in the BMJ titled, ‘We need to end cut practice in Indian healthcare,’ doesn’t seem to be much related to pharma’s direct business operations. But in many respects, the subsequent unprecedented announcement of the Maharashtra government on enacting a new law called the “Cut practices in Medical Services Act, 2017”, casts a darker shadow, not just on the doctors’ reputation, but also covers the health care industry, in general, including pharma.
Nevertheless, a commonly perceived nexus between the doctors and pharma companies, or for that matter alleged malpractices in many hospitals, also prompts a rub-off adverse perception – indirect though, on pharma’s overall reputation. Such barriers also need to be carefully navigated through.
While moving towards this direction, effective management of consumer perception is also of critical importance. For, reputation is a complex blend of both reality and perception, where perception is believed to contribute around 66 percent, and reality – about 33 percent, in various organizational efforts to gain business reputation.
Changing from a dogmatic to pragmatic approach:
The above area of adverse perceptual impact causing further dents in pharma’s reputation, is understandable, as these are beyond its control, as such. Nonetheless, what is difficult to fathom, why does pharma continue to remain so dogmatic in recreating a make-believe image, that continuously gets negated by its own actions on the ground.
To illustrate this point when I briefly look back, one of the critical themes around which, especially the research-based global drug industry has been trying to gain reputation, over a long period of time, is woven around – ‘innovation’. Concerned pharma players keep trying to gain consumers’ trust and reputation by trying to make them believe that pharma is one of the most innovative industries in the world, thus possibly trustworthy.
The same tradition continues even today. Millions of dollars are being spent through various communication and advocacy campaigns, hoping to drive home this point. Nonetheless, the current reality is that the pharma consumers hardly believe that the industry is particularly innovative today. I discussed that point in my article of July 26, 2017, appeared in this blog.
Therefore, I shall not dwell on that area again. Instead, let me try to arrive at, how is this dogmatic approach going way off the mark from consumers’ expectations, repeatedly. More importantly, why it calls for a rather pragmatic approach from pharma to gain reputation, taking well into consideration – what the patients’ or patient groups’ expectations are from the industry, based on meticulous research findings.
Patients’ recent perception on pharma reputation:
A recent report by ‘PatientView’ – a leading specialist in understanding the patient movement, and its impact on health care, captured perceptions of patient groups on the pharma industry, in this area. The report is titled, ‘Corporate Reputation of Pharma in 2016 – The Patient Perspective.’ The phrase ‘corporate reputation’, as defined in the study, is the extent to which pharma companies are meeting the expectations of patients and patient groups, and was assessed by the following three types of measures:
- How pharma’s corporate reputation compares with that of seven other healthcare-industry sectors.
- How pharma’s corporate reputation has changed over the past five years.
- How good or bad the pharma industry is at various activities.
The results of this study are based on a survey conducted between November 2016 to early-February 2017 on 1,463 patient groups; 46+ specialties in 105 countries. 47 pharma companies were assessed on seven indicators of corporate reputation, as follows:
- Patient centricity
- Patient information
- Patient safety
- Useful products
- Effectiveness of patient-group relationships
47 companies surveyed include names, such as AbbVie, Allergan, Amgen, Astellas, AstraZeneca, Bayer, Biogen, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eisai, Eli Lilly, Gilead, GSK, Hospira, Janssen, Merck & Co, Merck KgaA, Mylan, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Roche, Sandoz, Sanofi, Takeda, Teva, UCB and Valeant.
Some of the key findings of this survey are as follows:
- In 2016, just 37.9 percent of respondent patient group thought that the pharma industry had an “Excellent” or “Good” corporate reputation. Whereas 44.7 percent of patient groups had said the same in 2015.
- In 2016, only 23 percent of patient groups thought that pharma’s corporate reputation had improved over the previous five years. Whereas 28 percent of patient groups had said the same in 2015.
- In 2016 (as in 2015), pharma continued to be ranked 5th out of eight healthcare sectors (ahead only of generics, for-profit, and not-for-profit health insurers).
- Patient groups thought that pharma’s ability to conduct activities of importance to them declined in 2016. Patient groups were more sceptical in 2016 even about pharma’s ability to innovate, which is an important patient-group measure of confidence in the industry.
- Regarding the quality of pharma’s innovation across several geographic areas: patient groups in New Zealand expressed the least confidence in pharma’s ability to innovate; and those in Greece, the most.
What should pharma do?
Keeping the above findings in perspective, the consequent question that arises in this area is, what should pharma do to improve its patient centricity, and thereby to gain trust and reputation?
It is interesting to note that pharma companies should ‘consider the cost of drugs’, has featured as one of the top three, in the 14-point plan proposed by the 460+ patient groups in the above study, as follows:
- Partner with patient groups
- Provide more or better patient services
- Consider the cost of drugs
- Try to understand patients
- Develop better medicines
- Be transparent
- Involve patient groups in the design
- Look at continuity of care
- Listen to patients
- Help patients in a holistic way
- Increase participation in clinical trials
- Offer training
- Concentrate on safety
- Tailor services to individual patients
Thus, the bottom line is, among various stakeholders, patients and patient groups, play a critical role in pharma to gain reputation. Winning their trust is widely considered as the substratum to get this process rolling, effectively. In that sense, pharma players individually, and the pharma industry collectively, need to have innovative, and game changing strategic plans to win the patients’ trust, for a long-term gain in reputation.
Repeatedly trying to communicate that life-changing medicines exist, because of pharma’s years of efforts in painstaking research and development that are hugely expensive and time-intensive, doesn’t seem to be working much, any longer. Patients are increasingly expecting improved access to drugs for various treatments, coupled with related value added services, from the drug players.
In such a scenario, many top drug companies, on the other hand, publicly express: ‘we are patient-centric’. This creates a logjam, as it were, to take pharma’s ‘patient centric’ endeavors from this point to where the patients’ expectations really are. Thus, I reckon, it’s time for pharma to deeply introspect and act on what Socrates had advised a long time ago, ‘‘The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.’
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.