Four Steps To Credibility

Oct 14, 2007

THERE is a lot of talk these days about the importance of the pharmaceutical industry establishing trust with the American public. The prevailing public opinion is that the pharmaceutical industry puts its own interests above the general good, emphasizing business over health.

Even though drugs make up less than 20 percent of healthcare costs and recent changes to Medicare have expanded drug coverage, consumers complain about the price of drugs and the value for the money. Health authorities question industry's interpretation of clinical data and single out drug promotion as misleading and encouraging inappropriate use. In fact, industry is working hard on several fronts to demonstrate its commitment to patients and improving health, but a lack of credibility continues to haunt it.

The political and regulatory environment has also worsened the situation. In May, the Senate passed a bill that would give FDA new power to police industry on drug safety, mandate label changes, regulate advertising, and restrict use of medications that present serious risks to patients. The Senate was reacting to a loss of confidence in FDA and its ability to adequately regulate the industry.

Turning this situation around relies, in part, on the delivery of fair and comprehensive information about the value and risks of medicines and recognition among healthcare stakeholders that the industry alone can't solve what's wrong with the healthcare system. Better public health education—with an early focus on nutrition, exercise, and the avoidance of disease-provoking behaviors—would do more than drugs to improve health and reduce healthcare costs.

But information coming from pharma can also be improved to better educate the public and dramatically reduce the criticism that is so often evident in media coverage. Like the pharmaceutical industry, the media is a business too. And the media have what industry needs: access to millions and the credibility to carry its messages. But reporters have limited time. They need audiences coming back for more, and controversy sells. It is a Darwinian world.

Building a brand and a company's credibility in such a world requires a commitment to rigorous science and even more rigorous and open communications. We are moving in that direction more vigorously now than at any other time in recent memory, but such change, urged upon by so many stakeholders, requires more of everyone. Here is what industry might do with its communications to accelerate the process:

1 SET APPROPRIATE EXPECTATIONS AROUND CLINICAL TRIAL INFORMATION

Too often, we promise miracles rather than realistic improvements. Or we declare the science conclusive when other interpretations are clearly viable. The industry needs to avoid high-stakes debates over the proper use of drugs. We can do a better job by examining what we know—and don't know—about a medication when it is introduced and by developing and communicating more content to doctors and patients across a brand's lifecycle for more informed decisions. Today, it often seems as if patients and payers know more about a new drug within the first 12 months than the maker has learned during its development, and they are sharing the information widely. Over time, critics make their case felt, as they did with antidepressants and COX-2s. When voices are raised, brand leaders should examine the evidence and take the concerns seriously. If the brand's reputation and the company's integrity are to be preserved, a responsive tone must be set by those at the top of the organization.