The real conspiracy in the pharma industry

Paul Tunnah on how pharma industry workers can negatively affect patients without even realising it.

If you work in or around the pharmaceutical industry, you’re never far from someone reeling out a conspiracy theory.

They come in many shapes and forms.

At the more extreme end of the spectrum we have the theories around how pharma has secretly found a cure for cancer, or some other life-threatening condition, but is choosing to keep it hidden because there is no money in cures. Equally bizarre are the theories that the industry is somehow conspiring with dark forces to make us all ill, just so they can then make money by making us better.

Beyond that we head into the more middle ground theories, around how pharma is trying to hide the truth from us around its medicines. The ‘poster child’ for this conspiracy has to be the urban myth that the MMR vaccine causes autism, which has contributed to a resurgence in cases of childhood measles, despite being completely false.

“If you work in pharma then you have a responsibility to move quicker, be braver, be more outspoken and make every day count”

This category is sadly fuelled by high profile pieces of journalism like Ben Goldacre’s 2012 book ‘Bad Pharma’, which uses the sledgehammer tagline of ‘how drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients’, claiming that clinical trial data was biased and the sole function of industry commercial teams was to spin the lies even further.

All of these fuel the easily-believed baseline perspective of those who work in pharma – that they are all motivated by making money over making people better.

The problem is that, in my experience, and that of most others who really know the industry, this is complete and utter rubbish. It’s not just wrong – it’s staggeringly, unbelievably, monstrously wrong. It’s like accusing Mahatma Gandhi of being Genghis Khan.

The people I meet every day in pharma feel incredibly proud of the work they do and are inspired to make a difference to patients. It’s not to say there aren’t bad eggs in the system – you get them in every industry – but they only account for 0.01% of the system, if that.

But there is a conspiracy in pharma that is much more pervasive and much more damaging to patients than any of the above – inertia.

The pharmaceutical industry is often described as ‘conservative’ and those making the blockbuster drugs do experience the same slow pace of change as other big companies, supercharged (or slow-charged perhaps) by tight regulations.

It’s not done with any malicious forethought and it’s not immediately apparent, but when months, weeks or even days in getting new interventions to the right patients can literally be the difference between life or death, it matters.

So how do you know if you’re falling victim to playing a part in this conspiracy theory?

Well, here’s a few scenarios to watch out for.

‘Too busy doing internal stuff’

There are just so many meetings happening and daily tasks to do that it’s impossible to think about anything else. You’re doing the work of at least two people and there’s a headcount freeze so it’s not getting better any time soon. You miss emails, don’t respond to phone calls and just can’t see the wood for the trees. Don’t think or prioritise, just keep shovelling.

‘Waiting for the next job/retirement’

You’ve either been in your role for a while or just come into it, but know it’s just a short-term stepping stone to the next thing. All you have to do is, quite frankly, not screw it up, so don’t do anything different, don’t stick your neck out and the next promotion will be just around the corner, or that well-earned pension.

‘Waiting for redundancy’

Here we go again – another company reorganisation. You know the drill – don’t make a fuss, don’t make any outlandish moves and certainly don’t do anything of significant value and you’ll be just fine. You know that 20% of the workforce needs to go and, with your years of service, you’ll be sure of a good pay-out when you inevitably get culled.

‘Hiding in an easy job’

Nailed it! You’ve reached the peak of your ambition and/or competence, but your years of service have ensured you have a very healthy salary, good holiday allocation and a nice pension to look forward to. If you happen to get headhunted, or see something more attractive elsewhere, you’ll take a look, but for now it’s easy street and time to focus on life outside work.

‘Passing the problem down the line’

Maybe you work in drug development and just know that novel medicine is going to fail in later stage trials. Maybe you work in senior management and know that the promises you’re making to the city simply won’t pay off. But it’s not your problem. By the time people realise it hasn’t worked out it will be someone else’s mess to sort out or you might have even left the company.

‘Not wanting to be difficult’

You really believe in that new approach to patient engagement that you’re trying to roll out, or that new digital health application that you think could really make a difference. However, the folks in legal and compliance need to really take their time to review it before they can let you move ahead, so let’s not rock the boat and give them the six months/year/half a lifetime that they need.

‘Fear of failing’

It’s a great idea, isn’t it? No one has done it that way before, in fact no one has even thought of doing it that way before. It could revolutionise the way your company operates and massively impact patient outcomes for the better. But then again, there might be something you’ve missed, it might not work, you might get fired and it might be the end of your career. Best sit tight.

Now none of these are exactly the seven deadly sins and, quite frankly, we’ve all been there at some point in our careers. Nor are they unique to pharma – these behaviours are commonplace in lots of industries. You can easily find a million excuses to justify these behaviours and they don’t make you a bad person.

But if you find yourself commonly exhibiting them, then please either make a change or go and work in one of those other industries where your work doesn’t matter so much.

If you work in pharma then you have a responsibility to move quicker, be braver, be more outspoken and make every day count, because for a patient out there it might be their last.

I don’t believe in the big pharma conspiracies; I don’t believe in bad pharma and I don’t believe the industry is full of bad people. It’s full of very good, caring, passionate people.

But it’s no place for procrastination – pharma’s work is too important for that – so don’t let yourself fall into the conspiracy of inertia.

Make a difference, take a step forward, every single day.

About the author

Paul TunnahDr Paul Tunnah founded pharmaphorum in 2009, which is a content and communications company offering industry leading publications (www.pharmaphorum.com) and a strategic consultancy (www.pharmaphorumconnect.com). He is a recognised author, speaker and industry advisor on content marketing, communications and digital innovation, having worked with many of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies and the broader ecosystem of healthcare organisations.

Connect with Dr Tunnah at https://www.linkedin.com/in/paultunnah/ or email paul.tunnah@pharmaphorum.com.