Pharma Should Not Try to Build a Patient-Centric Image

Patient centricity needs to live in our people, not just our projects, our actions, not just our words.



I received an email recently that got me thinking. In it, a colleague shared his conflicted feelings about the pharma industry trying to build a patient-centric image. The essence of his argument was ‘you can’t say you’re most concerned about patient interests if you’re profiting from it.’ As someone who teaches pharma people to engage others through our common focus on the patient, I spend a lot of time speaking about patient centricity. With over 90% of pharma people believing that delivering on our patient-focused mandate is crucial (according to our 2016 Global Patient-Centricity Benchmark Survey), my messages are usually well received. From time to time, however, someone pushes back.

The truth is that some version of the sentiment, in the email described above, is in the minds of many patients, healthcare providers, healthcare stakeholders and even our own people. They wonder “Can pharma authentically put patient well-being above their financial interests?” As such, it’s critical that we think this concern through deeply and be ready to address the issue when challenged. 

First, let’s acknowledge the abundant evidence that companies that are driven by their purpose are the most profitable. By purpose I don’t mean making money for shareholders – that’s an outcome. I mean creating value for its customers and its employees. As former General Electric CEO, Jack Welch, put it: “Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy… your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”

Former Chief Marketing Officer of Proctor & Gamble, Jim Stengel, took this idea to the next level, establishing the connection between purpose and profits. He wondered: “What do the world’s best brands have in common?” He set out to answer this question by performing a 10-year growth study of 500 brands. The study tracked the connection over a 10-year period between financial performance and customer engagement, loyalty, and advocacy.

He zoomed in on the top 50 brands now referred to as “The Stengel 50”. If you had invested in these brands over the last 10 years, you would have made 400 percent more money than if you had invested in the Standard & Poor’s (S&P) other 450 companies! So what’s the secret? What did the top 50 do differently?

Stengel discovered that the most profitable brands focus on what he calls their ‘brand ideal’ which he defines as…their higher order benefit to the world.” In other words, they focus on their purpose.

In study after study, purpose-driven companies outperform profit-driven companies. For pharma companies, the surest way to create shareholder wealth is through focusing on patient health.

Most pharma companies have started to communicate their patient centricity but those messages don’t always land well – as the email from my colleague illustrates. The public brouhaha over the pricing of pharmaceuticals has deepened the belief among our critics and customers that we’re more about dollars than cures. The question at the heart of the issue is: “Can pharma authentically put patient well-being above their financial interests.”

To answer that question, let’s look at an example from outside our business. Bruce Poon-Tip is the founder of the most popular travel adventure company in the world, G Adventures, and author of the excellent book Looptail (you can read my summary of his book here). In it, he describes a weaving co-op they developed on their Inca trail tour. There are thousands of tours available from which travelers can choose. He wanted to differentiate his.

He also saw that the local people were not benefitting from the tens of thousands of visitors of the typical tour. Bruce saw an opportunity to build a weaving co-op. Not only did the culture maintain its weaving tradition but employment was created. The tour groups stopped by and learned to weave and purchased products.

He said that some people criticized him because building the community project served the needs of his business. It allowed them to stand out in the sea of Inca tours and differentiate themselves. Was that okay?

Before you answer that, consider that they took the long road to do this. They got the community involved in the creation of the project. They didn’t just give money and say: ‘Thanks for letting our tours come through, here’s a kickback.’ They created a long-term support system instead of giving short-term relief. They gave the people the gift of pride and control of their destiny. They gave their customers and employees the opportunity to be a part of something greater than themselves. So, not only was it okay to serve the needs of his business by serving the community, it was ideal.

So, back to the question of pharma’s authenticity in putting patients above profits. The evidence supports the belief that not only is it okay to profit from doing good, it is the best way of creating value for society and at the same time ensuring long-term sustainability for our companies and our ability to continue to create that value. Our authenticity in being patient-centric flows from this truth. In short, we must focus on the patient to create profit so we can develop new cures and treatments.

Recently in the United States, this idea has been hijacked by the CEO of a startup pharma company who used it as a defense for raising the price of its drug by 5000%. I cringed when I saw that interview. We all did. Why? Because those words from his mouth were hollow—so obviously dissonant from his warped values… from his behavior.

When my partner, John, was going through rep training way back in the day, his hotel in Kansas City left a quote card on his pillow each night. He’s kept it ever since. It was from steel magnate and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, who said: “As I get older I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.”

Which brings me back to the email I received about pharma companies trying to build a patient-centric image. In my opinion, we should not try and build a patient-centered image. We should be patient-centered in every corner, every fiber of our organizations. Patient centricity needs to live in our people, not just our projects. As Marty St. George, SVP, Commercial, JetBlue Airways says “If values do not affect daily life, they are not values.” Image flows from being, not from empty saying.

Patient centricity in pharma doesn’t start with words, it starts with actions. You can’t talk your way out of problems you behaved your way into. When you lead with your actions people don’t need to be convinced of your good intentions. Your image will then flow authentically. Existential questions about whether you can authentically serve patients and profit from that service become moot in the clear light of action.

We must take the long road and be authentically focused on patients. That will be the guiding light that leads to profitability. The key is that we make money so we can build better treatments rather than we build treatments so we make money. 


Since you're here...
... and value our content, you should sign-up to our newsletter. Sign up here

eyeforpharma Philadelphia

May 2, 2016 - May 3, 2016, Philadelphia

A new pharma: Customer partnerships that prioritize patient value

comments powered by Disqus