Looking Back; Moving Forward

I don’t give a d@mn 'bout your bad reputation

By Karen Langhauser, Digital Content Manager

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I’ve heard tales of times when Big Pharma wasn’t the enemy. Times when pharmaceutical companies were trusted and perceived as companies that helped heal sick people. These stories are often told in nostalgic whispers in dimly lit bars over glasses of expensive bourbon … and they sound like great times.

Being new to pharmaceutical journalism, these are times I admittedly have no memory of. The bulk of my experience as a journalist has been in the food industry - an industry that, like big pharma, has undergone its own long, reputation-grinding fall from consumer grace.

When Fortune magazine started its most admired U.S. companies’ annual poll in the early 80s, Johnson & Johnson and Merck grabbed top spots, General Mills and RJR Nabisco were right beside them, enjoying the love and admiration of thousands.

And now, as we ring in 2014, Big Pharma and Big Food are the favorite targets of critics busy heaping deserved and underserved scorn on these commercial giants, while leaving little for anyone to admire.

Some may argue that we, as a society, have simply grown more cynical in the past 30 years. I cannot disagree. With the advent of social media and online video tools, today’s critics have amazing new digital platforms from which to deliver their disapproval.

And yet, there is no denying that the pharmaceutical industry is troubled. Around this time, a lot of articles emerge outlining potential New Year’s resolutions for the pharmaceutical industry – essentially lists of things the industry can do to win back public trust. Not surprisingly, a large percent of these resolutions are digital related initiatives. (Want to know what Fortune’s top three companies were in 2013? Apple, Google and Amazon – sense a trend?)

Here are a few key goals that rely heavily on digital technology:

Goal #1) Greater collaboration – an industry that works together and shares research for the greater good. Data sharing, open source movements, crowdsourcing – these are no longer passing trends, and we have the technology to make it possible.

Goal #2) Proactive transparency – this goes hand and hand with goal #1. Uncloak clinical trial data, good or bad. Companies have already gotten the ball rolling with publically accessible web-based clinical research systems and systems that allow researchers to request access to anonymous patient-level data from clinical studies.

Goal #3) Better patient engagement – Commit to the adoption of patient engagement technologies
The pharmaceutical industry can play a role in engaging patients through new digital health initiatives. Diverse digital health solutions, ranging from web portals, to apps to smart pill bottles will help pharma companies renew their relevance in healthcare.

Goal #4) Data translation – With new healthcare reform, people are actively searching for information. Pharma’s contribution has to go beyond simply creating websites and Facebook pages and more along the lines of utilizing available technology to analyze and organize big data in ways that makes sense to patients and contributes to the industry’s forward progress.

Every December, many pharmaceutical companies hold company-wide year end wrap up meetings, and often these meetings discuss improvement goals for the coming year. For the industry to begin to fix its tarnished reputation, these meetings need to be more than overused clichés and buzzwords. Ask yourself: Are there actionable steps in place to achieve these goals? Are you making the necessary changes and partnering with the right vendors to move forward with these goals?

Call it naïve, but I choose to hold out hope. I honestly believe, when I go on tours of pharma companies and listen to people in the industry speak (in the same way I did when I toured food plants) that there are still plenty of people out there who have the patients’ best interests at heart. There is still a place for pharma in Fortune’s Most Admired Companies 2043.

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