Margot James MP presents the PM Society annual lecture
Every year the UK’s PM Society holds its annual lecture, inviting a guest speaker to address the assembled audience of pharma and service company attendees on topical industry issues. pharmaphorum recently attended this year’s event, held at Le Meridien Hotel near Piccadilly in London and found it well represented, with guests from across the pharma spectrum, including representatives from major global players such as AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi-Aventis.
Whilst this event always provides the opportunity to catch up with old friends and network with potential new ones, the highlight of the evening was the lecture itself, this year given by Margot James MP. Margot has a somewhat unique perspective of the opportunities and challenges facing pharma, having been able to enjoy both a successful commercial career in the industry in addition to a more recent prominent role in politics that saw her elected as the Conservative representative for Stourbridge in the 2010 election.
By way of a brief background, London School of Economics graduate Margot co-founded the pharma specialist PR firm Shire Health in 1986. After successfully growing the company into a force to be reckoned with, Shire Health caught the attention of the WPP group, to which it was sold in 2004. She remained on the board of Ogilvy &, Mather, a member of WPP, until 2008 when she stepped down to focus on her political career. However, she has always had a strong interest in politics, with Margot first joining the Conservative party aged 17, some time in advance of finally taking her seat in Westminster. A skill in communicating has played a key role in Margot’s career and in 2008 she was awarded the Communique Lifetime Achievement for communication services to the pharmaceutical industry. However, she has also experienced the challenges of healthcare provision first-hand, serving on the board of Parkside NHS Trust and in her work as a Mental Health Manager.
With her lecture representing the first time Margot had addressed the pharmaceutical industry as an MP, Margot was keen to address where she sees the real challenges of today and how the new government may approach solutions to them. Describing pharma as “having a special place in her heart”, Margot reminded the audience of how much has changed since Shire Health was founded in 1986, a time when AIDS was a new disease, the long-term prognosis for breast cancer patients was poor in the absence of tamoxifen and mental health treatment was still in the dark ages. It served as an eloquent reminder that the industry has, in her words “a great deal to be proud of”.
“Margot talked passionately about the importance of protecting our local pharma and biotech expertise, given the decline in Britain’s industrial base…”
However, Margot noted that not everything has improved during that time, with the industry currently overburdened with regulation, research costs spiralling and structural changes in the NHS making it difficult to understand who the customer really is. There was a clear message that the new coalition government would seek to address these issues, led by the new Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, whom she described as having a “passion for the NHS”. In line with David Cameron’s mantra of “empowering people”, Margot elaborated that Andrew Lansley would seek to empower patients and hand responsibility back to doctors and nurses, alongside the financial support of increasing spend in real terms.
Critically, she felt that the NHS should be accountable to patients, not to Whitehall and saw a huge opportunity for the expertise of the pharma industry in supporting this ambition. With this in mind, Margot talked passionately about the importance of protecting our local pharma and biotech expertise, given the decline in Britain’s industrial base, describing the recently established Office for Life Sciences as playing a key role in supporting this aim. In taking questions, the issue of exactly how the government would promote local industry was probed, with the response being around providing tax incentives for local research and a desire to reduce the bureaucracy in clinical trials conducted in the UK.
Indeed, in responding to a question of “if you could change one thing about pharma what would it be?” Margot stated that she would like to see more companies with an R&,D base in the UK, acknowledging with a wry smile that such change needed to be driven more by the government than by the industry itself!
However, there was also a strong hint of changes to come at the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), as the government seeks a new focus on outcomes and value-based pricing. Whilst one could dismiss this as early spin to avoid some of the historic PR disasters of NHS patients occasionally being denied access to oncology drugs available elsewhere in Europe, any move which increases access to the UK market for medicines that can prove their overall patient benefit will be well received by pharma. When probed on this, Margot clarified that the remit of NICE would change, away from a focus on individual drugs and more towards providing guidelines on broader disease areas, within which context individual drugs would be considered. In addition, she elaborated on how the multiple layers between NICE and the doctor must be reduced, returning commissioning power to the GP, whilst acknowledging that such decentralisation should not lead to an increase in “postcode prescribing”.
“…there was also a strong hint of changes to come at the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE)…”
In addressing these points, Margot raised a general desire to increase capabilities and services in the primary care setting, releasing hospital resources to be used only where really needed. This, of course, raised the inevitable question of hospital closures, which was dismissed as unlikely, and whether poorly performing surgeries would be held to account (including sacking GPs!), the answer to which was that there was clearly more work to do in addressing such issues but no clear policy defined right now.
Listening to Margot both addressing the audience and responding to their questions, it was clear that she is working within a new government that has much work to do before it can provide comprehensive answers. However, the sense was that there is a real desire to work with the industry, to encourage a partnership approach and to look internally at government and NHS processes for improved efficiency before asking the industry to do more. We are, after all, in the era of cooperative working with a coalition government!
But as the evening drew to a close, perhaps a key point of encouragement came in response to a question asking whether Margot’s brush with the public sector had made her more sympathetic to the way in which it operates given her commercial background. The response was, as one might expect, supportive of the public sector but also hinting that some of the dynamism that comes from worrying about a commercial P&,L can only improve the health system, which ultimately benefits the patient.
So if pharma and the NHS can emulate Margot’s career, working together to combine their private and public sector skills, the UK industry could be facing a much healthier future.
About the author:
Paul Tunnah is Founder and Managing Director of pharmaphorum, the exciting new online discussion and networking site for the pharma, medical devices and diagnostics industry. For queries he can be reached through the site contact form.
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