The Cure and the Cause

The pharmaceutical industry to which I have returned to is in a pretty bad state. Across the world, the ‘blockbuster’ drugs (those with annual sales above $1 billion) that have fuelled the sector’s growth during the preceding decades are coming to the end of their patent protected lives and with few exceptions there are no new treatments of anything like the commercial significance to replace them. The slow death of the pharmaceutical blockbuster has been on the horizon for several years but will probably reach its apogee later this year when Pfizer’s Lipitor (a statin for controlling cholesterol) comes off patent, wiping a colossal $13 billion from the firm’s turnover in the blink of an eye.

Yet the slow demise of the industry as colossus will not cause many tears to be shed, if anything you can detect a sensation of schadenfreude as many feel that a sector that had far outgrown its value to society is cut back to something approaching its useful size. How did my industry, which was once held with the highest of esteem as the epicentre of industrial research and technological advancement loose this lofty standing? When did the world of “big pharma” join the ranks of “big tobacco” and “big oil” in the line-up of usual corporate suspects in the popular imagination?

Well you can probably point your finger in any number of directions.  The tactics of the departments within which I ply my trade – Marketing and Sales, probably have more of a case to answer than most in explaining how such a overwhelming negative image of the industry has emerged. In a crazy couple of decades of unparalleled expansion, drugs were promoted too aggressively, doctors were entertained too lavishly and some of the basic tenets of what makes our products so important were lost. I plan to come back to several of these topics in future blog posts.

Yet I can’t agree with those who feel my industry should operate entirely on a research basis stripped of all means to promote its advancements. As a personal project during my time in Zambia, I tried to convince a number of key individuals within the Ministry of Health to consider an extremely useful treatment for the management of oral thrush (a particularly painful infection suffered by AIDS patients that reduces their ability to eat and hence their long term survival) which we manufacture and supply at cost. The many closed doors I encountered reinforced something that I have long known to be true – good drugs do not sell themselves. Like it or not – Doctors, pharmacists, whoever – are all human and a degree of push from sales and promotion is thoroughly necessary to get things moving, no matter how compelling the clinical case for use happens to be.

In sum, I am not here to absolve the transgressions of my industry or plea for your sympathy. We have worked ourselves into this particularly nasty corner and it is entirely down to us to rebuild the trust and respect necessary to build our way out. I do however like to believe that coming from a new generation of pharmaceutical marketers who have seen the error of our predecessors ways and are committed to changing things from the inside, I can be part of the solution rather than the problem.

At the end of the day, we still invent and produce some of the most important products that an individual is likely to rely upon during their life. There is an old expression in the UK health service that nobody ever got better with cups of hot tea (please don’t get me started on the non-science of homoeopathy). There may not be massive breakthroughs bursting from our pipelines but there are still plenty of important new advances for major diseases in development.

In the meantime, I have decided to laugh rather than cry when a stranger at a party sniffs haughtily when they hear what I do for a living before moving on to fawn over somebody who works for the marketing department of a trendy vodka. Like or loathe the industry, you can’t argue that many of our products continue to provide real help to many patients and to society at large. If I have had a good day, somebody might just be one tiny step closer to a revolutionary cure for hepatitis, if the vodka guy has a good day he has hastened the cirrhosis of the livers of a bunch more impressionable drinkers.

3 Responses to “The Cure and the Cause”
  1. vivian says:

    Right on Berkeley!!!! Fully agree with your views … have also had my share of “looks” when I say what I do for a living… Like you I consider myself part of the solution… after all, we have to pay doctors, hospitals, treatments, exams… why should drugs be free? How many countries without patent protection or investment in research and development generate life-saving innovative treatments?

  2. Debbie says:

    I love your blogs and this one us no exception. You so eloquently described the exact situation we are in at the moment . However I truely believe that by looking at how do things a bit differently we can evolve the way we as an industry operate and I am absolutly up for that challenge!passion is all down to your first boss I am told ; )

  3. gazpat74 says:

    Hi Berkeley – long time no see. Remember from back in 2004 ish with GCC on Velcade in UK? Mate of Jack Hadfield? Anyway nice blog post. Hope life is well … we are down under in Sydney now – still in healthcare of course.
    All the best
    Gary Pattison

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