Pharm Exec Q&A: GSK's Deirdre Connelly

Sep 29, 2009

A 24-year veteran of the pharma industry, GSK’s President of North American Pharma Deirdre Connelly has been given the responsibility of making GlaxoSmithKline a more transparent organization. Similar to recent tactics taken by Pfizer and Merck, GSK as becoming a friendlier, more open company, with the intended end game of giving consumers a more positive outlook on the pharmaceutical industry. Pharm Exec took the time to talk to Connelly to find out more about her role at GSK and the changing shape of the industry.

How different is it working at GSK as compared to other pharma firms?

There are more things in common than you would expect. Luckily, I’m familiar with many of the opportunities this industry offers and some of the challenges we need to overcome. GSK has similar values to Lilly, but there’s more of an entrepreneurial approach to the business at GSK than there was at my previous employer.

Is there any reason why you chose GSK over other opportunities?

GSK is one of the most successful companies at bringing products of value to the marketplace. I was sitting on the other side watching GSK CEO Andrew Witty develop a very clear strategy that called for diversification both in the way that GSK presented his products around the world and therapeutic diversification. That was very attractive to me.
I also saw GSK, through him, making very significant contributions in areas where people don’t have the means to access medicine, and that’s very important to me and to [the company]. We want to bring good medicine to everyone, but also ensure that those that don’t have the means still have the access.

Are there plans to offer discounted drugs to unemployed Americans, similar to the strategy Pfizer announced a few months back?

We are already active [in helping people in that regards]. Perhaps we haven’t done as good a job publishing it, but I can point to three programs. We have Bridges to Access that offers products to low income patients who do not have prescription drug benefits. We have another program called Commitment to Access, which offers oncology and specialty medicines to those who don’t have the means. And, we have GSK Access that offers non-oncologic medicine to eligible Medicare Part D enrollees.

Do you think it’s difficult publicizing programs like these to the general public?

We haven’t done a very good job, and that’s because, historically, our industry has been under the conservative notion that publicizing the charity we did wasn’t appropriate. That’s the thinking we had in this industry for many years. In a way, it has prevented us from showing the world programs that we offer that give back to society.

We have a program a GSK that we call Orange Day—an objective for employees to go out to the community and serve the underserved by helping either with Habitat for Humanity or helping clean schools. We expect each team to take a day and go out and work for others. Also, we have the Pulse Program, a volunteer partnership program where we loan employees to non-profits to work on projects in the US and abroad.

You recently announced new rules for funding continuing medical education. How are they different from your old policy?

We know that many of the things we do in pharma aren’t very clear to the public, and as a result of that people might get the impression that it’s not the right thing to do. It has gotten in the way for us to articulate the value that we bring to society. Among those things is CME. GSK and other companies have provided a great service in investing a lot of our resources to ensure that physicians get the best education so that they can service patients appropriately. In the last few years, people have questioned whether we engage in this practice with the objective of influencing inappropriately—obviously that is not and has never been the intention at GSK.
The changes call for a review of the recipient organization so that we know that the way that they approach CME is of the highest quality, and that they have metrics that show that quality. We are targeting highly recognized academic institutions to receive that support, and we will go from getting hundreds of request to only getting institutions that are certified and have a great reputation.

Do you feel that this initiative makes it look like you were giving out funds to too many CME companies that shouldn’t have received support?

We’ll never be able to please everyone, but I can tell you that the intention is not to say that those companies that received funding before did not do a good job of educating physicians. We want to give support to companies that aren’t just doing CME well, but are doing it in an excellent way.

Is this an issue of becoming more transparent?

We need to earn and keep the public trust. We make medicine and people who take our medicine need to trust that that drug is of the highest quality, that it is packaged with information of the highest integrity, and trust that they will feel better. Everything we do internally has to reflect that desire to earn the trust of customers and patients.

GSK was the first [pharmaceutical company] to publish its clinical trial data. We will publish what we pay our advisor, and we will invest our CME resources in the best institutions.

Do you see an industry-wide shift away from ultra secretive Big Pharma to an open discussion between pharma and consumers?

Yes, but I think it’s a sign of the times. We are seeing more openness in government, and in other industries. You can make a comparison between [pharma] and going to a haunted house. You want to go there, but you get scared because you don’t know what to expect. But if you go to that same haunted house and flip the light switch on, and you see what’s there, it’s not as scary. That’s what we need to do. The most important thing we do is invest a significant amount of our revenues to find new cures—that in itself is, in my perspective, is a reason to get an ‘A’ versus other industries. But we still need to go beyond that and contribute to society beyond medicines.

What role does GSK’s North American pharma division have in the company’s global strategy?

Most of us that lead companies have two jobs—one is to ensure that our specific area of responsibility is at the level that is required, and to collaborate and contribute to the leadership of the corporation. While I am the president of North America, I am also a member of our executive committee that sits in London and help develop strategy and policy for the global corporation.

Is there a particular strategy in place to reaching the global market?

I can speak to what Witty has spoken to, and that is our intent to grow our US market, which is close to 50 percent of our revenue. But at the same time we need to ensure that we invest appropriately both in our current portfolio and access molecules and partnerships around the world that will give us access to those markets with critical mass. We have made investments in China, India, and Asia Pacific, as well as strong partnerships in Europe. GSK is one of few companies that have been doing this very deliberately, and with urgency and speed.

A lot of fuss has been made over the H1N1 flu, do you think it’s appropriate and was GSK prepared to start work on a new flu vaccine so early?

When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me “better safe than sorry.” So I would advocate for us to take the measures to prevent pandemics both in vaccines, but also in society so we can learn how to prevent them. In the case that we have a pandemic, we should have the vaccines ready. I’m pleased that we are going to be able to contribute to the solution in the case of the H1N1 vaccine.

We prepared for many years for this. This isn’t something that caught us by surprise. We plan appropriately, because this is an event that can occur. While we don’t talk about it publically, those of us that have the good fortune to be involved in a solution in case of a pandemic prepare and work with governments across the world to be ready.

What’s GSK’s perspective on healthcare reform?

We’ve been trying to tackle healthcare in this country for the better part of 50 years. So we are delighted to see that the President and Congress are taking this on, and we support and commend that effort. Obviously, reform is the key word here. We have to ensure that what we come up with at the end of the day is something that tackles the unnecessary cost of healthcare, for example chronic disease that is 75 percent of the healthcare costs in this country. Many of those diseases are preventable if we educate and manage the diseases through medicine. The cost associated with healthcare and medicine is only ten percent of the total cost. But if we use that 10 percent appropriately and get people to adhere to their medicines, we can impact that 75 percent.