Tunnah’s musings: why the drug industry is finished

Paul Tunnah

pharmaphorum

Last week I was surprised and, I have to admit, a little flattered to discover that I was the number one #pharmasuperfan, as determined by Silja Chouquet in her analysis of Tweeting about the pharma industry. To be a little more specific, Silja had analysed a whole bunch of Twitter accounts that were following multiple pharma companies and assessed how much retweeting and commenting they were doing that mentioned these same companies. It turned out that my account (@pharmaphorum) was the one that came out on top, so I’ve done a lot of Tweeting about big pharma.

So why the odd title for this piece? After all, if I’m pharma’s biggest fan why am I so eager to postulate on its demise? Stay with me and I’ll explain.

It would be easy to assume some sort of sycophantic motives behind me sharing so many Tweets from pharma companies, that I’m just another PR machine for the pharma industry. Those who know me well will know that’s most definitely not the case and if you take a look at the kind of Tweets I send on from pharma companies you will start to understand why. I would also add that I do try to ensure fair balance and am most certainly not incentivised financially for my Tweeting!

“…the Tweets that really grab me are about all the things pharma is doing that aren’t directly to do with drug development.”

For sure, I do keep an eye on what all the major pharma companies are saying through Twitter and do, on occasion pass on some of the more typical corporate fodder around financial results or drug updates. However, the Tweets that really grab me are about all the things pharma is doing that aren’t directly to do with drug development – and I see more and more of it going on.

I’m talking about updates on philanthropic initiatives, drives to raise disease awareness or support disease area charities, updates on interesting activities by third parties in different disease areas (I’m seeing more of these) and, more and more often, direct two-way dialogue through Twitter with the pharma companies themselves, or more specifically their communications people (who are increasingly visible by name). As a side effect (no pun intended) it also makes the industry appear more human and approachable, which is an important first step in improving its PR and facilitating broader initiatives.

For me this is all very encouraging, because it not only signifies that pharma has started to ‘get’ Twitter (and indeed social media in general), but it also highlights a fundamental shift that is taking place at the core of most of the big players in this industry. To put it bluntly, they’ve realised that producing drugs alone is no longer a viable business model. Patients and healthcare systems want to improve their personal or national wellness, not be simply given a drug to manage illness.

In other words – unless pharma can demonstrate that its medicines can effectively (and specifically cost-effectively) manage or prevent disease it’s dead in the water as an industry. In order to do so it’s about a lot more than products, it’s about patient education, partnership with third parties around disease awareness, technology to support the patient and improve compliance and much better multi-way dialogue between all the relevant stakeholders – patients, healthcare providers, payers, regulators and, of course, the industry. Pharma is starting to realise it has the structure, experience and cash to help implement all of these.

“…unless pharma can demonstrate that its medicines can effectively (and specifically cost-effectively) manage or prevent disease it’s dead in the water as an industry.”

Without this, it’s a bit like a driving instructor leaving you with a car and expecting you to be a skilled motorist when they come back in six months’ time!

For sure none of this is new, as many a management consultancy has been harping on about pharma transitioning from being a product to service industry for a long time now. What’s exciting though is seeing pharma actually starting to adapt and change, putting some of these initiatives into place and trying new things. Whether it’s helping to build patient communities, investing in mobile technology to support diagnosis and treatment, exploring gamification as a way to better educate patients or simply providing financial support to those organisations that are supporting disease and public health initiatives it is starting to happen.

There’s still a long way to go, believe me. I hear consistent themes emerging from our epatient interviews around better support at diagnosis, help with identifying credible drug and disease information, more drug access programmes (and better explanation of drug pricing) and, of course, greater transparency around clinical data and any past misdemeanours. But I get the sense that somewhere within those big corporate machines people are listening and planning how they can implement change.

There’s also a broad spread when it comes to how far down this solutions path individual pharma companies have progressed. Some big pharma remain very quiet on Twitter and, in my opinion, it would seem to be the ones that are least progressive when it comes to healthcare solutions versus simple drug delivery.

“What’s exciting is seeing pharma starting to adapt and change, putting some of these initiatives into place and trying new things.”

But change they will or they simply won’t exist in 20 years’ time (or most likely sooner). Development of new medicines will always be a core proposition from pharma, but without more supportive initiatives around the drugs it’s a pretty short story as cost containment and patient power come to the fore.

And maybe as we see this shift accelerate pace people will stop talking about the ‘drug industry’, as pharma rebrands itself as the provider of all-round disease management, focussing on health and wellness, not just pills.

In short, the drug industry is dead, long live the health support industry.

About the author:

Paul Tunnah is Founder and Managing Director of www.pharmaphorum.com, the dynamic online information and discussion portal for the pharmaceutical industry featuring news, articles, events / company listings and online discussion. For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

What should we be calling the drug industry?