Can Pharma Win Back America?


According to recent polls, less than half of Americans trust pharmaceutical companies. In fact, only 42% of respondents say they have any trust in pharma, with a paltry 6% having a great deal.

These companies provide us with life-saving drugs and therapies daily. The average lifespan today is almost 79 versus just 54 a hundred years ago. That increase is thanks to the science and technology oftentimes being produced by pharmaceutical companies. Yet, Americans still don’t trust them. Is it possible for pharma to win back America?

In search of answers, BioSpace spent a little time with Ryan Buell, a Harvard Business School Professor whose research investigates the interactions between businesses and their customers. He shared some of the major breakdowns in trust he’s seen with regard pharmaceutical companies and what he thinks can help.

Buell started with the building blocks of trust – authenticity, empathy and logic. Right off the bat, he identified a perceived lack of authenticity in pharmaceutical leadership as a primary cause of the massive hemorrhage of confidence. Not to say that is true of all pharma execs, but the issue is that the glimpses the public gets are not all that flattering. (Cue the video of Rep. Katie Porter tearing apart former Celgene CEO over his unbelievable price-hikes of a cancer drug for profit.)

“People want to know that you’re in it for them and that your actions are authentically connected to being in it for them,” Buell said.

Actions like increasing price from $13.50 to $750 for one pill have left people with the impression that these companies are not in it primarily for the patients.

What is Going on Behind the Curtain?

Remember when Dorothy’s crew finally makes it to the great “Wizard of Oz”? The little dog Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal a frazzled man pulling levers crying out, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” But it’s too late. They’ve already seen. And what they saw caused them to lose all trust in the man behind the magic.

Today’s media similarly gives little glimpses behind these large corporate “curtains”, and often it's negative news. This is where Buell’s research can help. Through his business experiments, Buell discovered that by voluntarily providing “operational transparency, people’s trust and satisfaction, even in settings where trust is otherwise low, was increased.

Operational transparency is exactly what it sounds like – giving folks a window into the behind-the-scenes operation of your business. The current tumult surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine is a great example of what happens when there is NOT operational transparency and instead the population is bombarded with mixed messages from the multiple media channels rather than a clear image from the source.

There is a great sense of urgency and millions of dollars behind the efforts to produce a COVID-19 vaccine. Yet, because of the opacity in the industry, the loudest voices (not the most qualified) are tossing around conflicting information along with politically charged hopes and personal opinions as fact. This has caused doubts in the logic of the process, and, like a three-legged stool, once you kick out one pillar of trust the whole stool topples. Now only 21% of Americans say they would definitely get the COVID vaccine if it were available today. You know what makes for a truly ineffective vaccine? One that no one will take. Vaccines can only be effective when a large majority of the population receives them.

This is where Americans need that operational transparency into the process of developing this vaccine. Accurate information proactively coming from the developers all along the way is essential. There will always be voices speculating, reporting inaccurately and hunting for conspiracy. What is needed is louder, authentic voices from the experts, the scientists, not only coming out to tout their end result, but giving that window into the development as it progresses in a way that makes individuals feel informed and brings back legitimate trust to the scientific process.

Give Us the Good AND the Bad

Buell clarifies that companies need to provide, “not just transparency to show the flattering things, but actually very open, saying this is what this trial looks like. This is the number of people. This is what we’re learning. We don’t have our thumb on the scale. We’re testing things that have the best chance of success but not everything works. And that’s science. We have to keep pruning the tree and keep trying. I don’t think we currently have enough of a window into that, into the effort that’s going on behind the scenes.”

Pfizer has been upping the ante lately with more information being shared behind their processes. An informative yet understandable breakdown of the scientific process behind their COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials. A personal letter from their CEO. A recent conversation in which Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer discussed raising their voices for the cause of science. These are definitely steps in the right direction.

Yet more will be needed to repair the broken bridges. The fact is negative media will always get more attention.

The American people need these companies voluntarily coming out with the full facts, instead of “gotcha” journalism catching them in a mistake or poor decision.

Bottom Line: Give America a Reason to Trust

As Dorothy expressed to her disappointing wizard, “If you were really great and powerful, you’d keep your promises!” The people want the biopharma industry to keep its promise to, “provide access to medicines that are safe, effective, and affordable,” and other mission statements like it.

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