Our industry had a collective ‘oh my god’ moment at the start of 2020. Pharma had been trundling along at a pretty leisurely pace for decades, when we were blindsided by the biggest health crisis since smallpox. A mad scramble followed. 

Before the crisis, it had been a safe bet that pharma would be one of the last industries to come onboard with digital; a sluggish behemoth that did not need to adapt as it was still succeeding by its traditional means. By mid-2020, it was no longer a question of whether we should adapt; it was who would make it, how quickly, and how effectively. More progressive players and long-standing trailblazers of digital prowess, like Novartis, found the transition easier. Others found themselves trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. 

Who Gets to Rewrite the Story of Pharma?

If you look at some of the anti-vaccination propaganda swirling around on social media, you could be forgiven for wondering whether more input from the public is a good thing. And to those hoping that the distrust will disappear the moment a certain president-elect takes office – it’s going to take more than that. But even in the chaotic landscape of public opinion about our industry, there are opportunities waiting to be seized. During the pandemic, barriers to understanding of the industry have been reduced. Patients are more informed, more invested, and more vocal.

For the first time, the pharma industry is being held accountable by more than typical stakeholders. In the past, we answered to the FDA, EMA, and similar regulatory agencies. We also had to demonstrate our value to payers. But now, in the process of the development of vaccines against COVID-19, some key players have committed to unprecedented levels of transparency. They are showing their processes to the whole world, publicly demonstrating that they’re doing things the right way: putting safety at the forefront and working within the strict frameworks our industry has developed. We’re just doing it faster. 

A lot of analysts are asking whether this transparency is going to be common practice. I propose that the question should be: why not? The pandemic has changed the public’s expectations. They want to hold us accountable. I see this as an opportunity, not a threat. The release of the promising data around the new vaccines has given hope to people all over the world. Pharma isn’t destined to be painted as a villain; it can be a hero to billions if it recognises this fact and capitalises on it. 

The World Is Watching – Now What?

It is clear that customers have become more empowered. Look at what’s happening in Europe – networks are banding together across countries to get better deals on vaccines and PPE. But how does pharma respond? Everyone needs to ask themselves: do I need to reshape my strategy to suit what customers see as essential? Is this a phase we will come out of, or a long-lasting change in perceptions? 

When COVID-19 disappears from the news cycle, the general public won’t be as invested as they are now, but that doesn’t mean yesterday’s strategies will suddenly be relevant again. We can’t afford to think of engaging with patients as a nice-to-have anymore, or as a second thought to be addressed after ensuring regulatory approval can be achieved. It is imperative to bring these stakeholders on board earlier than we used to. Pharma must therefore continuously analyse the shifting priorities and behaviours of these stakeholders to make sure they are positioning their activities correctly. We can’t just assume the FDA and EMA are the only decision-makers. Politics and public perception are going to play an increasingly important role. 

At the same time, knee-jerk reactions aren’t going to help. We must think long-term sustainability. You have to ask yourself: if the COVID-19 crisis winds down in six months, how will the decisions I make now look? At which points in our operations should we actively adapt? Which are the short–term gains that won’t matter in a few months’ time? The last thing we need is for our transformed engagement strategies, ways of working, and internal prioritisation to become obsolete as quickly as we can put them in place. 

Is there a way of achieving an operating model that can address both in-pandemic, out-of-pandemic, and a combination of both? There better be, because this is what will distinguish the real long-term winners, who have achieved the agility to adapt in a moment’s notice, from the stragglers who cement their positions, make irreversible decisions, or choose not to make them at all.

2021: Back to Our Ivory Tower?

In 2020, pharma has tried to position itself as a peer. We can’t then go back to holding our partners at arm’s length. We find ourselves in an increasingly customer-centric world, where transparency and choice enable business success. Value-based healthcare, which aims to demonstrate holistic value throughout the entire healthcare system, is becoming an essential strategy. How you communicate this value proposition might single you out from the competition. 

Will the support you offer a patient – the generosity and breadth of patient services, the investment in real world data collection, the use of companion diagnostics – be the new main determinant of product selection? Or will the product itself remain the determining factor? These emerging and increasingly important drivers will determine whether value-based healthcare initiatives become a necessity. If that happens, bringing patients into market access decision-making will need to be much more than window-dressing.

These shifts could mean that the definition of ‘value’ will be forever changed as healthcare systems adapt to new KPIs and require pharma to put in the hard work to demonstrate they are meeting them. I look forward to seeing how key players take this onboard; will it be through more creative M&A? More flexible engagement strategies? More robust and remote clinical trials?

Let’s not stick our heads in the sand. If this was pharma’s digital revolution, we need to find out what’s next. Waiting for the next pandemic isn’t going to cut it. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that we, as an industry, needn’t to wait for the next pandemic to put rapid, decisive, and game-changing strategies in place. We have to be more proactive than reactive. Maybe that will determine the winners and losers: who can monitor and adapt to changing customer needs and habits to capitalise on the evolving definition of value.