As I write this column it has been about two weeks since comedian John Oliver placed the pharmaceutical industry squarely in his sights and unleashed a 17-minute comedy skit on his show Last Week Tonight. I have long been a fan of Oliver, and as with most of his work, there were some funny moments. But the skit highlighted both an unfair perception of pharma and the contrasting need for continued change within the industry.
As John LaMattina pointed out in a piece he contributed to Forbes shortly after Oliver’s skit aired, a clip from a long-ago sales meeting in which managers made inappropriate remarks to motivate their sales force failed to note changes that have been voluntarily put in place by that same company (GlaxoSmithKline) as it struggled to address the very types of behavior Oliver used as his comedy prop. Had the skit aired before those corrective actions it would have been a great example. Instead it was a cheap shot that fails to recognize solid attempts at reform.
I also found comments that referenced presentations made by doctors to other doctors, but with the pharma company creating the slides and script used for the talk, misleading. Pharma doesn’t insist on adherence to pre-made slides because that helps them sell more pills than having the presenter just create their own presentations. Rather, that practice is designed to prevent off-label and potentially misleading anecdotes and personal experiences from misleading the audience. Again, Oliver makes things sound far worse than they are, and that unfairly misleads the public—even on a comedy show.
I must say, though, that Oliver made one comment that rang true with me when he said, “Drugs aren’t like most other products…” We need to come to terms with that and realize that our industry is held to a higher standard by the public than those who make toilet bowl cleaners or pizza. As an example, I have come to personally question the wisdom of DTC ads for pharmaceutical products and think they do more harm than good for the industry because they are both objects of ongoing ridicule and, frankly, often poor examples of advertising. If differentiation is the goal then most are failing miserably, and if it’s disease awareness, then there are likely far better ways to spend that money.
I would rather see those funds used to develop programs that collaborate with healthcare providers and health systems to promote that desired disease awareness, and to improve screening, diagnosis and guidelines-based care. And I remain solidly convinced (and encouraged) that pharma companies can play a role in those efforts that allows them to be active sponsors and even collaborators with those other stakeholders—even as they are good stewards of their shareholder funds.
I love laughing at John Oliver, but think his recent skit was less than fair. Still, there was enough truth in it that I remain eager to see our industry continue to evolve. We’re doing better. But we can do better still.