Three years ago, if you asked members of the public at random who the likes of Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna were you’d hazard a guess that many of them wouldn’t be able to tell you. Now, post the peak of the pandemic, pharmaceutical companies have sky-rocketed to household names (and all of a sudden, my friends and family seem to be able to grasp what my job is), but what does this mean for the industry?
The most obvious starting point is to look at how pharmaceutical companies responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, developing vaccines faster and distributing them in greater numbers than ever before. The reaction from the public was positive, but it also led to the question ‘why can’t this always be the case?’ To those of us who understand the industry the answer is obvious. However, research by Accenture shows that the pandemic has led to a moderate to significant impact on research and development expectations among 46% of the public. The challenge is clearly there for pharmaceutical companies to communicate the realities of research and development and why the approach to COVID-19 can’t be more broadly replicated in other therapies, while also striving to effectively explain the learnings and innovations they are taking forward.
Furthermore, research by the ABPI has shown that 60% of the public said their views of the industry had improved since the pandemic. A positive statistic, but one which raises the question of how pharmaceutical companies can maintain this momentum. Especially when the same research also showed that just 14% feel they know a lot or a fair amount about the sector in normal times and trust in the industry is customarily low. Pharmaceutical companies need to continue to be more open and public facing in order to maintain the enhancement in reputation they have seen.
But how can they do this? Firstly, pharmaceutical companies need to go beyond immediate stakeholders. After all, we are all potential customers. In this sense, there’s a requirement for greater transparency from pharmaceutical companies in terms of the way that they work, how they innovate and what they are focusing on. This curtain has been lifted during the pandemic, but must remain open in order to deliver long lasting improvements on reputation and an understanding of the industry.
In terms of clinical trials specifically, EU regulations now require pharmaceutical companies to provide a lay summary of any clinical trial that takes place within one year of its end date. However, pharmaceutical companies should consider how they can build on this requirement and deliver more than the bare minimum. The interest in COVID-19 trial data showed that the appetite is there, and providing patients, their families and caregivers, and other interested layman audiences with a variety of accessible and helpful resources can help to tap into this.
Beyond their comfort zone, there’s also a need for pharmaceutical companies to have a position when it comes to the most pressing challenges we are facing across the globe – from the Ukraine crisis, to climate change, to LGBTQIA rights, to racial justice. Without demonstrating their position and closing the say-do gap by also taking actions to back this up, pharmaceutical companies will struggle to garner respect as global changemakers. Leading industries now need to do more.
Finally, visibility of leadership is also important, in recent years we have notably seen Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan create a strong online presence. At its heart healthcare is about people; it’s time for pharma to show the people behind their brand logos. For companies to remain relevant post-pandemic and to maintain levels of trust, their leaders need to become as visible and open as those in other large industries.
The opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to build on the learnings of the pandemic is there. It is up to them whether they take advantage of this or fall back into their previous routine and habits.