Do you Work for Good or bad Pharma? Unplug and Play

Only 213 days to the end of the year. Sounds like a lot, but if you deduct weekend days (60) you realise just how quickly time is passing.

Today’s topics:

– Do you work for good or bad pharma?
– Unplug and play
– In celebration: one of the best subject lines ever!
– It’s later than you think

Do you Work for Good or Bad Pharma?

Last month, Pfizer announced that it will make 23 patented medicines and vaccines available to the world’s poorest countries on a not-for-profit basis, in a bid to address the global healthcare gap that came under renewed scrutiny during the Covid-19 pandemic (link to the Forbes article).

I mentioned this during dinner to a colleague who works for a large pharmaceutical company. She reacted defensively, saying, “Naturally, this is a great initiative, but we have many initiatives ongoing that facilitate healthcare access for patients in lower-income markets. Financing negotiations are held, and creative financing models are regularly implemented. Unfortunately, outside the industry, people only ever talk about the cost of medicines and the high profit margins.” She continued: “Obviously, we are not a non-profit sector, but then the risks of drug development are high. I wonder why we do such a bad job communicating the good things we do?”

It was an interesting question and it reminded me of my time before pharma. When I said I was leaving clinical work to join pharma, my hospital colleagues said in collective horror, “So, you are joining the dark side?” I remember pointing out, “Without the pharmaceutical industry we would be prescribing willow bark extract, laying our hands on our patients and chanting them better with fervent Oms.” While I experienced both hospital processes and payer interactions as painfully inefficient, I realised fast that my attempts to reduce spending on my ward were doomed to failure.

Healthcare systems are complex. Most people don’t think about them at all unless they are directly impacted. In addition, unless you have worked in one, or engaged with payers, it’s impossible to know how inefficient they are. Also, it’s hard to estimate how much money is wasted due to inefficient processes, as different stakeholders are involved, with conflicting interests. It’s not easy to understand nor identify how best to improve the system. Costs keep rising however, and accepting that nothing else can be done, perhaps focusing on drug prices and the profit margins of the pharmaceutical industry is a practical scapegoat. While I was acutely aware of the inefficiencies of the hospital that I worked at, I also remember my surprise when, on joining pharma, I saw a chart showing the annual healthcare expenditure in Switzerland and learned that prescription drugs represented only 8% of the overall costs.

But back to my colleague’s question: “Why do we do such a bad job communicating the good things we do?” While there are reasons that public perception is what it is, her question on why we don’t communicate better, struck me. So I will share one more story.

At a conference, a fellow speaker said to the audience, “We need to tell our customers that we are not commercial functions, and therefore they can trust us.” I have heard variations of this sentence many times. When I stepped onto the stage, I held up a bottle of pills and said, “If this bottle represents your company, your functions are represented by the pills. Customers will see the company first, the function second. They will trust all of you, or none of you.” And I added, “If you don’t think your colleagues are trustworthy, why should customers trust your company?”

In summary, change starts within. If even employees don’t have a balanced view of the business they work for, it is impossible to expect anyone else to have one.

Unplug and Play

My day invariably starts with this question: “How much can I get done, how fast?” Mundane tasks are handled as fast as possible. When things go to plan, I am happy. Unfortunately, however, things are often out of my control.

In a recent example, my list included the following item

  1. Place an online order
  2. Sign a document in online banking
  3. Cancel a subscription

I expected to be finished in under an hour. Four hours and six conversations with customer service agents later, two out of three tasks were completed.

The problem with my time estimate? I don’t live in an ideal world, where websites have been tested and call centre agents know when their product has technical issues. By noon I was annoyed that I had made almost no progress on my day’s planned tasks.

In the past, I would have sped up to compensate for lost time. Now, instead, I take breaks and do something fun. Stepping away, instead of soldiering on, is much the best approach in any situation where irritation has displaced joy. I have discovered I achieve much more if I take a break to do something fun, than if I force myself to continue, when my heart is not in it.

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” Anne Lamott

In Celebration: One of the Best Subject Lines Ever!

When I joined pharma, there was a beautiful orchid on my desk. I gave it lots of coffee grounds so it flourished. I remember this incident because it was a wonderful welcome to a new company. Another memory is my manager saying: “The day you joined my team was a red-letter day.” As a European I thought this was a bad thing, but she explained, no, a red-letter day is a special one.

As my own manager I don’t celebrate myself much, but sometimes I am celebrated, and it feels amazing. In response to my last newsletter, I received four messages. One reader said he loves my writing. He also keeps asking me when I plan to write a book. The answer to that question is: “I am working on it, but it’s slow going”. Another reader wrote she enjoys my newsletters and that my last one made her think of the film Chicken Run. A third reported that he was: “Giggling like a schoolgirl”, at my MRI experience; if you missed that story, you can find it here (My ankle is not your patient). And a fellow consultant, who is in the business of writing spectacular newsletters, sent me a one-liner: “One of the best subject lines ever!” in response to the title My Ankle is not Your Patient. I adore his writing, so his compliment means a lot. The experience reminded me that it’s important to celebrate yourself, your teams and the world in general. In fact the working world, in particular, would be a better place if there were more authentically spoken words of admiration. And as you can see from my examples, a small act of kindness can mean the world to someone and may very well be remembered many years later.

It’s Later than you Think

The end is nigh. There are 127 working days to the end of the year, in Switzerland, excluding weekends and public holidays. If you are in the US, it’s even less. Whichever way you look at it, the first six months of the year are gone. So, if you are only just getting started on your projects, it’s time to get a serious move on. Here are some classic activities that you can make lots of progress on by the end of the year if you start now:

  • Understand your current customer engagement approach and identify a future-focused multichannel, department and globe-spanning improved approach.
  • Analyse your current med info set-up, identify gaps and plan for a better future.
  • Assess how your company uses data.
    • Where is it stored?
    • Who has access?
    • Taxonomy? Ontology? Is there any metadata?
    • Do you have data lakes or data cemeteries?
    • Are you making use of cross-functional, data-sharing opportunities?
    • Do you know what data might be useful by market? Why not meet with peers in other countries and identify what insights might be useful
    • Identify opportunities to collaborate, plan an improved data management approach and move your day-to-day business away from metrics towards actionable insights
  • If you already have great databases and harmonised data access, discuss how customer insights can be used cross-functionally to better support customers, thereby improving customer-centric business and safer use of medicines.
  • Increase overall efficiency to improve effectiveness.
  • Design, write, review and publish a global SOP, including all stakeholder input and sign-off depending on the complexity of your company and the number of stakeholders involved.

Then again, you may not want to start something new. Whatever you are working on, I wish you the best of luck with your endeavours.

I hope, as ever, that my blog provides you with some useful insights. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. And of course, if you have a challenging project or would like to discuss coaching to help you achieve that next level, do reach out and we can arrange to chat.

Very best wishes

Isabelle C. Widmer