From The Editor | August 5, 2020

Will Pharma Sustain Improved Reputation and Trust Beyond COVID-19?

Ed Miseta

By Ed Miseta, Chief Editor, Clinical Leader

Max Reputation

Pharma’s reputation has been battered in recent years. There has been no shortage of ammunition, with the opioid epidemic, black box pricing, and some bad actors (Martin Shkreli and Mylan). Until recently, Americans have never had a lower view of their prescription providers. Unfortunately, this is not simply an image issue. This viewpoint most certainly contributes to the challenge pharma companies face in recruiting participants into their clinical studies. A significant number of patients are not aware that clinical trials exist, and many of those who do are leery of taking part in them.

How bad is the trial recruitment situation? In September 2019, Gallop published its annual review of the U.S. public’s opinion of 25 industries. The results were based on the “Work and Education” poll conducted between August 1 and August 14, 2019. The results showed the pharma industry had sunk to a new low. In fact, pharma dropped to dead last, becoming the most poorly regarded of all industries. Americans are more than twice as likely to rate the pharma industry negatively (58 percent) as opposed to positively (27 percent). As if to add insult to injury, the federal government was ranked ahead of pharma in 24th position.

Unfortunately, this low ranking is nothing new for pharma. Gallup has been conducting the annual review for 19 years, and few industries have been rated lower than pharma. Although the industry has had its ups and downs, the view of pharma by the American public has been on a mostly downward trend since 2015.  

While the industry had seemed unable to shake its negative image, there is now reason to believe the attitude of the public is shifting. The main reason for the turnaround is, surprisingly, COVID-19.

A Positive Outlook

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly shined a light on the drug development industry. Americans who previously felt disdain for pharma are now looking to the industry for a vaccine or treatment that will stop the spread of the virus and save lives. The fear of this virus may have managed to do what pharma was unable to do for years: improve the public’s view of the need for drug development companies.

The pandemic may also be increasing awareness of the existence and necessity of clinical trials. News outlets discuss the progress of vaccines and the need to test them in clinical trials before each can achieve FDA approval. Americans who previously were not aware of trials now understand their role in the approval of new treatments.

Kirsty Graham, CEO, Public Affairs and Global Chair, Health, Edelman
Kirsty Graham, CEO, Public Affairs and Global Chair, Health, Edelman
One report already shows the progress pharma has made. Earlier this year Edelman released its annual Trust Barometer report spring update. The report, produced from surveys administered in April as the virus was changing behaviors around the world, shows trust levels in health and its subsectors has increased substantially. According to Edelman, pharma had the highest rise across all subsectors, a record-breaking high of 73 percent of interviewees globally expressing trust in the industry.      

“The public is relying on pharmaceutical companies for an urgently needed vaccine as well as new treatments,” Kirsty Graham, CEO, Public Affairs and Global Chair, Health at Edelman, stated in her recent LinkedIn post. “Quite simply we won’t be able to manage Covid-19 without the pharmaceutical industry, and it appears the public is viewing the size, experience and global footprint of these companies as a source of hope and expectation that they will lead the way on new developments and discoveries.”

Hope For The Future

While the bounce in pharma’s favorability numbers is good news, those numbers are still subject to change. Graham stated higher levels of trust in pharma are not likely to remain without sustained commitment to human health and the greater good. The current level of trust may not insulate the industry against post-COVID issues such as access, pricing, and transparency. The question is, what can pharma and healthcare companies do now to safeguard their current high levels of trust?

In her LinkedIn post, Graham noted what she thinks the healthcare industry needs to do to maintain its higher level of trust moving forward. While her suggestions related primarily to the healthcare industry, I think they are applicable to any company working in the life sciences. Below is my take on those suggestions, and how they might help pharma companies continue to build on their own level of trust.

  1. Meet The Needs Of The Public

The pandemic is a pivotal moment for government and pharma. Americans are now looking to these two groups to pull us through the pandemic. To maintain the current high levels of trust, the industry will need to deliver on the public’s most urgent needs. The Edelman Trust Barometer found the pandemic has put the spotlight on the fear that the burdens and efforts to help have been unfairly distributed. Two-thirds of respondents agree that those with less education, less money, and fewer resources are being unfairly burdened with the suffering and risk of illness. That situation must be addressed.

  1. Address Public Concerns About The Pandemic

Globally, 68 percent of healthcare employees trust their CEO when speaking about the virus and its progression. However, only 29 percent believe their CEO is doing an outstanding job meeting the demands of the pandemic. While we do not have those figures for the pharma industry, I do believe sponsor company CEOs must do a better job of communicating with the public. The public needs to know what the industry is doing to address the pandemic, the progress being made, and a timetable to help everyone understand how long it will take to discover a vaccine.

  1. Be The Source Of Trustworthy Information

Communicating with the public is key, but pharma and biotech companies must provide honest and trustworthy information. COVID has amplified the discussions on what sources of information can and cannot be trusted. Two-thirds of respondents say they worry there is a lot of “fake news” being spread about the virus. Pharma should be a source of information the public and trust and rely on. This is a time when companies cannot overpromise and underdeliver.

  1. Rely On Innovation, But Explain The Science

Edelman notes two-thirds of respondents said they trust businesses involved in healthcare innovation to do what’s right. At the same time, 78 percent admitted they know little or nothing about that innovation. Pharma faces the same issue. Everyday I speak to clinical executives about the amazing advancements they are making in treating cancer and rare diseases, and the new technologies enabling that research. Unfortunately, the public almost never hears those stories. A concerted effort by pharma to reach the public and explain the work they are doing could do a lot to maintain a level of trust with the industry.

Trust in pharma is up, but with that increased trust comes increased expectations. Let’s hope that pharma can produce the products the public urgently needs and continue to build on trust and transparency moving forward.