Pharma: part of the problem or part of the solution?

Wendy Blackburn

Intouch Solutions

If it’s true that in business, your reputation is all you have, where does that leave pharma? Wendy Blackburn weighs in on the problems facing this industry and offers some possible solutions…

“Is pharma part of the problem or part of the solution?” When someone posed this blog post “question” to me, I admit I didn’t know the answer. But even though I didn’t immediately know the answer, what was meant as pharma’s “problem” was indeed immediately apparent.

Actually, make that plural: pharma’s problemS were immediately apparent.

You see, the pharma industry has many problems. It has a problem with its reputation. It has a problem with communication. It has a problem with innovation and with taking risk. It has a problem with R&amp,D and pipelines. It has a problem with being stuck in the past and with refusing to change with the times. It has a problem with the high cost of its medications. It has a problem, by default, of being tied to healthcare systems mired with problems of their own.

And, in the eyes of some, the pharma industry has a problem with honesty and integrity.

The industry is already living in the shadows of the Vioxx era. And CEOs pleading guilty to obstruction of justice combined with record-breaking $1.6 billion settlements are not making things better. It’s an industry with a serious reputation problem it just can’t seem to shake.

The pharma industry has, in fact, a plethora of problems.


“The pharma industry has, in fact, a plethora of problems.”


But this isn’t a blog post just about problems. Because my mother always taught me not to whine. And my boss – a wise man – often requests of his employees, “If you come to me with a problem, you must come with a solution as well.”

I can’t claim to solve or even fully understand all the problems of pharma.

But I do believe the industry’s reputation is far from representing a fair assessment of its contributions to society.

Think about it. Pharma and the science that supports it have provided the solutions – or at least great relief – toward the problems of millions of people suffering from chronic, debilitating diseases. Sometimes this has even meant a cure.

Last week on a business trip, I read an airlines’ in-flight magazine. The magazine featured an in-depth special section covering “Good News from Cancer’s Frontlines.” It covered loads of information about major advances in cancer research and treatment, recent breakthroughs, progress on the horizon, and the promise of personalized medicine. Certainly the pharmaceutical industry is a major player in the changing face of cancer’s past, present, and future. Yet nowhere in the entire article was pharma mentioned. Instead, it quoted progress from research centers and cited drugs – such as crizotinib– by generic name only with no mention of the manufacturer.

It baffled me as to why the authors blatantly disregarded pharma’s role in advancements of the treatment of cancer. Could it be due to reputation? Were they worried a mere brand or company mention would imply bias to a dark industry with a wretched reputation? If so, perhaps the industry’s reputation is in even worse shape than we thought.


“The industry’s reputation is far from representing a fair assessment of its contributions to society.”


What’s an industry to do? Goodness knows there is no simple answer. But I would like to humbly offer up these eight bits of advice to our pharma leaders:

1. You are who you hire. It can be said that that organizations are no more than the people that work there. Your reputation and your business depend on you hiring and retaining the best people. Do background and reference checks. Support and reward the highest ethics from the grounds crew up to the CEO and back.

2. Listen. In today’s incredibly over-stimulated society, just shutting up and listening is a rare activity by individuals, much less an entire industry. But if pharma would listen – truly listen – to its customers, and genuinely work harder to meet their needs, the industry could go a long way towards better understanding its stakeholders.

3. Put patients in the center. Of your business model. Of your product portfolio. Of your products’ marketing and communications plans. Of your universe. Make no mistake: without patients there would be no pharma.

4. Focus on the cure. I once heard someone voice frustration with pharma companies with the accusation that “the industry makes more money treating diseases – not curing them. That’s why they’re not looking for cures.” It was an appalling idea to me, but I can’t imagine he’s the only one who has voiced this idea. Let’s step back, look at our R&amp,D programs, and make sure these accusations aren’t accurate.

5. Behave. Let’s get past Vioxx already! It starts in the board rooms, C-suites, conference rooms, and email in-boxes of pharma companies around the world. It starts with those uneasy decisions that fall in the gray area between right and wrong. It starts with YOU. Behave already.


“Perhaps the industry’s reputation is in even worse shape than we thought.”


6. Get out of the rut. Much has been said about the need for pharma to innovate in order to survive, and I have to agree. The good news is, it’s happening, with innovations such as Sanofi’s iPhone-integrated IBGStar blood glucose meter. (disclosure: they’re a client) Let’s keep looking for ways to bust out of pharma’s usual modus operandi.

7. Be SoLoMo. “SoLoMo” is marketing industry jargon for “social, local, mobile,” and pharma can take a cue from this slang. Many are getting weary of hearing about the promise that social and mobile media hold for pharma in connecting with consumers and healthcare professionals. Yet I would be remiss in writing a post about pharma’s problems and solutions if I didn’t mention these – and other emerging technologies – as ways pharma can accomplish some of what needs to be done – especially in the areas of listening, research, understanding, connecting, and communications.

8. Above all, be human. I once heard an outspoken patient advocate admit that she had met “hundreds of genuinely nice, smart people in the industry.” I wholeheartedly agree. But the industry’s reputation as a whole is not made up of the sum of its parts. And you can be sure that the media does not focus its stories on the “nice, smart people” in pharma. The more the industry can do to be human and empathize, the better.

What problems do you see the industry facing from where you sit? I would love to hear your view. All I request is that you don’t offer a problem… without also offering a solution.




About the author:

A face familiar in pharma social media circles, Wendy Blackburn has more than 16 years’ experience in pharmaceutical and healthcare marketing. With a background in PR, B-to-B, and digital, today she is responsible for client strategy, client service, and business development for Intouch’s top-20 pharma clientele. Her blog, ePharma Rx, and Twitter handle, @wendyblackburn, have become the go-to authorities for discussions around all things pharma marketing, digital, and social.

Phone: 913.956.4328


What problems do you see the pharmaceutical industry facing?