It’s Customer Service, Stupid!

I just returned from a pharma-focused conference emphasizing the new buzzword of the month: Patient centricity. Pharma’s been talking about being “Patient First” for years. But are they really about patients? Show me the money. No, literally, show me the money spent on improving internal mechanics, creating new job positions (that actually have their own autonomous budgets), communicating with patients and reengineering stoic barriers to success.

Prove my cynicism wrong because, at least in the oncology sector where I focus, I have not seen this. I’ve seen regulatory attorneys continue to fear violating biblical standards imparted from the gods—and great attempts to understand how to be patient centric but, again, legal compliance makes it virtually impossible to get anything done. All I see are patient advocacy budgets slashed. What kind of message does that send to the KOLs, like the CEOs of patient advocacy organizations?

With virtually every disease now made chronic, we’re not so focused on “cure” as we are “quality of life.” The chronic lifestyle. Disease is now hospitality. Patients are customers. Providers and hospitals are the hotels. Pharma is the concierge. Insurance companies are the cashiers. And “Sunshine” won’t let you replace the toilet paper in the rooms.

The industry is listening. I almost think they understand. It’s the “how” and the “what now?” that breaks the Internet every time and shuts down the conversations. It’s the old story of “profits over purpose” that stands as the single largest barrier to changing anything.

Where are the pharma CEOs with cancer? Diabetes? Crohn’s? MS? Show us you are a patient too. Tell us there is no “cure” locked in a safe somewhere. Talk about customer service issues you faced when you were sick, or how your EMR account broke and they lost your records. Tell us how you were jerked around by insurance that wouldn’t cover the more convenient oral chemotherapy treatment but, rather, you had to find coverage for your children while you begrudgingly trudged to the clinic once a week for a six-hour infusion. Tell us what went wrong and how you will change the culture of your company to serve your needs as a human being first. Purpose over profits.

To say pharma has a bad rap is an understatement. Reputation-wise, they’re ranked at the same level, if not worse, than tobacco companies. What is wrong with this situation?

The perception that I hear: The pharma industry just does not understand it’s purpose anymore or seem to understand who the end user is, or how to deliver value to that end user. Patient centricity is just a fancy term for “the customer comes first.” Period. End of story. You want just one example of how you can actually put patients first? Have them completely overhaul and redesign the trial recruitment and enrollment process from scratch. Good luck with that.

Until such time as the big boys start treating the consumers of their products as well as the current best-in-class customer service champions—Apple, Wegmans and the Ritz-Carlton (see—there is no such thing as patient centricity.

Purpose first. Profits later. Do good, then do well.

  • Matthew Zachary

    Concert pianist and cancer survivor Matthew Zachary is the Founder/CEO at Stupid Cancer, the nation’s dominant youth and young adult cancer brand. An agency veteran, he launched a social movement by innovating the nonprofit model through disruption and social entrepreneurship.


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