For an industry that is known to develop life-saving (and even just minor disease treating) medications, pharma sure is not seen in the best light. In PatientView Quarterly’s recently released study, “The Corporate Reputation of Pharma – The Patient Perspective,” 600 international, national, regional (and a few local) patient groups were surveyed regarding their opinions on the corporate reputation of pharma. Only 34% believe that multinational pharma companies have an “Excellent” or “Good” reputation—a 19% decline from last year—with 40% stating that they believe that pharma’s reputation declined over the course of 2012. Overall, multinational pharma companies placed sixth out of seven healthcare industries—only for-profit health insurers fared worse. (In case you are wondering, retail pharmacists and medical device companies topped the list.)

“First, we have to remember that the recent financial problems and the gridlock within Congress led to a lot of consumer mistrust for a lot of industries,” says Richard Meyer, Healthcare Analyst at eMarketer. “That being said, pharma has not really done a very good job, as an industry, to inform consumers of the costs and barriers to developing new drugs. Most consumers do not understand that it can cost as much as $1 billion to develop a new drug and only one in eight drugs ever get approved by the FDA while most fail in clinical studies. The other issue, of course, is that the mainstream media does a good job of putting pharma’s bad moves into the spotlight. The recent $750 million fine for illegal marketing by Amgen is just an example. When consumers read this they of course are skeptical of the industry.”

The survey seems to support a lot of what Meyer is saying. According to the results, patients ranked pharma poorly in terms of fair pricing policies, transparency in corporate activities, managing adverse news about products, having a patient-centric strategy, and acting with integrity. Other things that hurt the perception of the industry: “A preoccupation with drugs that offer only short-term health benefits,” “inappropriate marketing of drugs (including those for off-label indications),” “not enough effort is being made to discover chemical entities suitable for neglected catchments of patients,” and “behaving more respectfully towards clinicians than towards patient groups.”

However, not every pharma company comes off so poorly in the eyes of patients. The top 10 patient-friendly pharma companies, according to the survey include: (1) Lundbeck, (2) Gilead Sciences, (3) Novartis, (4) Janssen, (5) Pfizer, (6) Abbott, (7) Novo Nordisk, (8) Roche, (9) Lilly and (10) GSK.

For the rest of the pharma companies out there, the question remains: How can we improve our reputation?

In his Forbes blog, John LaMattina, former president of Pfizer Global Research and Development, offered his solution. According to LaMattina, pharma must do four things: (1) improve the transparency of payments to HCPs, (2) improve the transparency of clinical trial data, (3) stop the illegal detailing of drugs and (4) drop the TV ads.

Considering those last two suggestions took a shot at pharma’s marketing practices, Panorama was interested in getting pharma marketers (among others) to offer their suggestions for solving the industry’s reputation problem. Yes, some of them actually agree with LaMattina, but for the most part their suggestions boil down to four different recommendations that can help the industry improve its image.

1. Put The Patient First

When the goal is to improve the perception of an industry in the eyes of its consumers, then it is probably a good idea to improve your relationship with those consumers.

“The pharmaceutical industry is more often mentioned in the context of share prices than of lives improved,” says Brenda Snow, Founder and CEO of The Snow Companies. “People perceive the science- and business-driven world of pharma as cold, because the perception of what really matters is distorted. The answer to the problem is to put things into perspective for outsiders as well as industry professionals, by highlighting who really has to be front and center of all our efforts: The patients.”

In other words, companies need to do a better job of showing patients how important they are. One way to do this, according to Rob Peters, SVP, Strategy of MicroMass Communications, is to deliver value and not just look out for its own bottom line.

“One significant opportunity to both provide greater value and shake its negative image,” says Peters, “lies in developing a new model of patient-centric operation that effectively and productively aligns stakeholders industry-wide.”

Patient centricity has already proven to be a popular buzzword in 2013, so hopefully that means pharma is already on the right track. But, Dr. Steven Feldman, Professor of Dermatology, Pathology & Public Health Sciences at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, also believes that pharma needs to find a way to make a personal connection with its patients.

“Pharma has some of the same image problems doctors have, only on steroids,” says Feldman. “The solution to a poor reputation is always the same: to show at a personal level how much you care. For doctors, it involves looking patients in the eyes and putting a caring hand on the shoulder. Pharma has a higher hill to climb, and it will take exuding a sense of personableness and caring, on an industrial scale.”

Another sign that patient-centricity is the way to go: it is precisely what two companies in the top 10 believe led to their favorable patient perception.

“At Novartis, putting patients at the center of what we do is a core value and behavior,” says company spokesperson Julie Masow. “Novartis supports patient organizations by partnering on specific projects, developing disease education materials and providing tools that address patient access needs.”

While Novartis finished third on the list, the No. 1 ranked company shared many of the same sentiments.

“Our success is fueled by our commitment to see the person behind the disease,” says Matt Flesch, Sr., Manager, Communications at Lundbeck. “We see how the disease can impact a person’s life, as well as the lives of their caregivers, their families and their communities. It’s this focus that sets us apart—driving our commitment to innovation in psychiatry and neurology, our ability to bring forward research, and our active engagement with the patient community. At the core of our strategy—of everything we do—is the question: “How will this improve the lives of the patients we serve?” We are constantly reminded of the importance of our work. It all comes down to our mission to improve patient lives.”

One example of Lundbeck’s active involvement in local and national patient communities is Studio E: The Epilepsy Art Therapy Program, a national program made in partnership with the Epilepsy Foundation of America that allows people with epilepsy to express emotions that may be difficult to explain to others (see www.YourPartnerInEpilepsy.com). Another example is Moving Together, an initiative supporting the needs of people affected by Huntington’s disease (HD) through a Facebook community and active engagement with patients and families in more than 100 educational and fundraising activities each year.

2. Better Messaging

Others believe that pharma’s real problem is communication.

“Where there is a void of information, the public will fill it in with their own perceptions,” says Kerry Hilton, CEO of HCB Health. “If we don’t tell our own story, then someone else will. That’s why the best way to improve our industry’s image is to educate consumers about how pharma has changed the world and how it continues to make lives better.”

For example, Hilton explains that this could include providing more “before” and “after” examples as well as laying out the industry’s expectations for the future. According to Hilton, in an ideal world this would be an aggregate message coming from the industry as a whole, not from one company alone.

David Ormesher, CEO of closerlook, however, believes what the industry really needs is charismatic leadership. “John LaMattina’s recommendations for improving pharma’s reputation aren’t bad, they just don’t go far enough,” according to Ormesher. “What is needed is leadership willing to step into the limelight and proactively wrestle back the reputation high road: Someone with Jack Valenti’s passion and Roy Vagelos’ science credentials who can clearly explain the industry with a mixture of candor and fierce loyalty, reframing its important role in public health.”

While LaMattina suggests that TV ads need to go, Richard Meyer thinks that DTC advertising is part of the solution and not the problem. “Research has shown that DTC advertising actually helps raise awareness of certain health conditions and thus more and more consumers are going online to learn about treatment options to become better informed patients,” says Meyer. “It’s also important to remember that despite DTC marketing efforts most patients still trust their physician for the best treatment recommendation.”

Meyer does believe, however, that the industry should be concerned about this survey’s results because marketing is also going through a transformation. “The days of pushing marketing and branding on consumers are being replaced with two-way marketing,” says Meyer. “Right now, for the most part, pharma doesn’t know what two-way marketing really means. Most still ignore social media, and drug websites are not updated as much as they should be with new and relevant information.”

This is becoming a bigger problem as more and more drugs come off patent, because, according to Meyer, patients do have access to more information than DTC advertisers like to acknowledge. Additionally, patients are using this information as well as their power as consumers to request lower-cost drugs from their doctors. In other words, while DTC advertising can help improve pharma’s reputation, the industry needs to do a better job improving its current DTC messaging.

3. Take A Lesson From Orphan Drugs

If BIG pharma wants to know how to improve its reputation than it should look at how SMALL pharma operates.

“Maybe Goliath can learn from David,” suggests Patricia Malone, SVP, Creative Director, Copy at Dudnyk. “The 29 companies examined in the study were all BIG pharma or biotech companies. But if you examined patient impressions of a list of orphan drug companies, the results would most likely be different. These companies have become expert marketers—forming close bonds with patients and physicians, developing innovative support programs, and looking to new business models that are not dependent on drug margins.”

4. Develop More Adherence and Wellness Programs

Scott Guerin, PhD, Director of Government and Policy Systems at the Access Group, agrees with LaMattina’s suggestion that the industry needs more transparency in dealings with physicians, organizations that influence the industry, and in efforts expended in conducting research. But, in addition to increased transparency, Guerin believes that developing adherence and wellness programs can have the greatest positive impact on a company’s reputation. In Guerin’s opinion, developing these types of programs actually serves a company in two ways: by demonstrating its commitment to wellness and expanding use of its products.

“No matter how manufacturers choose to respond to surveys like this, in this global economy where money is tight, large for-profit organizations have significant challenges maintaining positive public perceptions,” says Guerin. “With significant and continued efforts in areas as suggested above, however, over time, the pharmaceutical industry will be seen as a true partner in the advancement of healthcare.”

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