How the Pharmaceutical Industry Can Increase Trust

“You can’t talk your way out of what you behaved your way into,” says Stephen Covey.

But not everyone believes Covey.

NY Times, May 22, 2007.

“Columbia University dismissed its financial aid director yesterday after the release of documents showing he promoted a student loan company in which he had a stake, sending letters to parents and alumni on three occasions praising the lender.”

NY Times, March 21, 2007.

…the year [Dr. Allan Collins]was chosen as president-elect of the National Kidney Foundation, the pharmaceutical company Amgen, which makes the most expensive drugs used in the treatment of kidney disease, underwrote more than $1.9 million worth of research and education programs led by Dr. Collins…In 2005, Amgen paid Dr. Collins at least $25,800, mostly in consulting and speaking fees…

…Dr. Donald Hunninghake served on a government-sponsored advisory panel that wrote guidelines for when people should get cholesterol-lowering pills… eight of [the panel’s] nine members had financial ties to drug makers.

A 2002 survey found that more than 80 percent of the doctors on panels that write clinical practice guidelines had financial ties to drug makers.

Doctors said that lectures were highly educational, and that drug makers hired them for their medical expertise and speaking skills. But former drug company sales representatives said they hired doctors as speakers mostly in hope of influencing that doctor’s prescribing habits.

I don’t wish to engage in pharma-bashing. But Covey’s point needs heeding.

Columbia’s response to conflict was to say that the director, a 1985 graduate of the university, had “abused a position of trust and violated the university policy on conflicts of interest.”

So they fired him.

Covey, presumably, would approve.

Not so in pharma. In recent decades, the business of making and selling drugs has become much less about making and much more about selling. Perhaps that’s why the industry tends to see its trust problem as a marketing or PR issue—’if only the public knew the full truth, they’d trust us.’

Typical is this headline, from an April post by Ipsos research, :

Pharmaceutical Companies Need To Raise Awareness Of Their Social Investments To Improve Industry’s Image

Or this, promoting an interactive web seminar:

How can you safely navigate this politically-charged environment—and keep your business and brands strong? What can you do to restore public trust—even while facing negative campaign rhetoric? Find out at a New WebSeminar—Surviving the Election Wars: Strategies to Build Trust and Defend Brands.

Just to be clear who they view as being in charge of trust and brands:

If you are involved in advertising, marketing, market research, corporate communications, product and brand management, senior management, public affairs, or public relations…This is a program you can’t afford to miss!

PhRMA, the industry association, is a big proponent of the trust-is-a-communications-issue viewpoint. In an article appropriately titled "New PhRMA Leaders Discuss Future of the Industry, Need for More Public Education, " PhRMA’s CEO, ex-congressman Billy Tauzin, says, "“For PhRMA to continue to advocate well for our members, we must begin to correct the misconceptions and the outright fraudulent views that have been created about our work and our products.”

So, how’s it working? Here’s one survey:

43% of US adults believe that pharmaceutical companies fund groups like the American Heart Association and the National Kidney Foundation in order to get more people to buy their products or medicines, whereas only 21% believe it is to demonstrate that the companies care about a health issue supported by the group.

Truth: the pharmaceutical industry is loaded with good, smart, dedicated, well-meaning people. It has saved millions of lives, and improved millions more. It has the potential to do unimagineable good. We need a trusted pharmaceutical industry. But it’s the industry that must do the heavy lifting, not the consumer. The only real way to be trusted is—to be trustworthy.

A friend who does PR for pharma tells me it is difficult to give away drug coverage to lower income people—for free—because people are suspicious.

Covey’s right. You can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into—ask Imus. You can’t market your way out of structural conflicts of interest—ask Arthur Andersen. You don’t become trustworthy—worthy of trust—via marketing or advertising or PR agencies. That’s throwing water on a grease fire.

Pharma needs a fundamental recontracting with two critical constituencies—patients and physicians. It’s a business thirsting for trust—but trust based on values and behaviors. Not on spin, ads, press releases, awareness improvement and “education.”

We should all be rooting for pharma to make that shift.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *