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Over the past two years, the pharmaceutical industry has adapted its approach to patient care due to the pandemic. Here, Chris Round, president of EMD Serono, discusses how he adjusted his leadership style and approach to patient care in the most effective way.
Pharm Exec: How did pharma leaders have to adapt their leadership styles to address changes brought on by the pandemic?
Round: When Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, asked me to take over as head of its US healthcare business, known as EMD Serono, in 2021, I knew that coming onboard in the thick of the pandemic required an evolution of the working models and an adaptation of my leadership style. It takes effort to build connection, comradery, and trust—both with colleagues and customers—which are critical to get to the next level. We leveraged a hybrid work approach, which required us to embrace digital technology while also meeting face to face safely and appropriately on a periodic basis. This method allowed us to quickly develop trusting relationships between leadership and colleagues to strategically plan and implement.
Today, as the industry continues to evolve despite the pandemic, it presents a real opportunity for cultural growth. As an industry, and more broadly in the working world, leaders are grappling with what the “return to office” will look like. There are certain elements in our business model where the pandemic helped us uncover some efficiency improvements. We’re going to find customer groups being more comfortable in digital spaces, and the market will demand in some ways how we move forward. The challenge will be to keep what we’ve learned and improve upon it, while at the same time striking the right balance with a level of face-to-face elements as well. The most effective companies will embrace a hybrid model and move forward that way.
In this vein, the pandemic has a silver lining for biopharma businesses and leaders. We’ve seen the impact of digital health technologies in the last two years, specifically for patients. The rise of digital technology during the pandemic elucidated how it can ease healthcare burdens by providing alternative, more efficient care delivery models such as telemedicine. Take for example the transition to virtual oncology interactions, which impacted the patient experience. Pre-pandemic, virtual care was mainly used to supplement, rather than replace, in-person cancer care; this shifted with COVID-19.
Pharm Exec: How can life sciences companies better serve the needs of patients with difficult-to-treat conditions, like multiple sclerosis?
Round: To be patient-directed means to involve patients as much as possible across the whole process of drug development and beyond—not simply putting patients at the center but involving them in the actual design of programming. It’s a way of working that all life sciences companies can leverage to better serve the needs of patients with difficult-to-treat conditions.
Putting this thinking into action, EMD Serono collaborated with Accelerated Cure Project, tapping into a research initiative called iConquerMS, to allow individuals living with multiple sclerosis to contribute their perspectives, ideas, and data to researchers to integrate into the design and implementation of two ongoing clinical trials.
The partnership has enabled better science, helping EMD Serono build out a roadmap to harmonize patient reported outcomes, not only for regulatory acceptance but also for real-world clinical utility, while directly supporting the company’s latest MS clinical trial program.
Pharm Exec: How did you change your packaging to make it more sustainable?
Round: The new Slim Pack packaging for one of our fertility medications is 40% smaller and made of 100% recyclable cardboard, swapping out the previous plastic tray. It's expected that the pack size reduction will positively impact the supply chain process, as less cold storage space allows more product to be transported in fewer shipments.
Companies are increasingly looking to use their economic and social resources wisely to protect natural resources. We’re looking at our business practices to determine where we can contribute. By lowering the medication’s global carbon footprint annually, this effort will play a contributing role in lowering the company’s CO2 emissions. And there’s hope to replicate across other therapeutic areas of the business, too.
We like to say our mission at EMD Serono is to help create, improve, and prolong lives. There are so many ways to do that and make an impact, whether delivering new medications to patients, improving services, or small steps like redesigning packaging. It’s all part of the journey to deliver better for patients.
Pharm Exec: How have virtual oncology interactions impacted the patient experience?
Round: In some respects, this quick transition made providing cancer care increasingly difficult. There were no clear guidelines on whether to see someone virtually or live, and comforting someone virtually while addressing end-of-life topics led to concerns for providers. There was upstream effect in the cancer community as well—specifically, a sharp decline in cancer screenings due to patients being unable to visit their oncologists or primary care provider.
On the upside, virtual care increased patients' access to care, especially for those living in rural and remote communities, and was convenient for patients by saving time and money on traveling, parking, and waiting. Virtual care also facilitated the delivery of cancer care efficiently and flexibly for many patients.
The quick transition to virtual care informed thinking on an in-depth, virtual cancer care strategy to deploy in the future: an area of consideration for many cancer organizations. And there was a push from Community Oncology Alliance (supported by EMD Serono) to raise awareness around the importance of screening across the country, not only in pandemic times but in times of “normalcy” as well.
Pharm Exec: What was the impact of COVID-19 on fertility treatments?
Round: The fertility space was also uniquely impacted by COVID-19, a space where EMD Serono has been leading for over 20 years. Patient willingness and demand for in vitro fertilization (IVF) has increased compared to pre-COVID levels as the combination of telehealth and remote work flexibility emerging post-COVID relieved pain points in the patient journey.
At the pandemic’s onset, fertility clinics shut down and there was significant contention within the community. Given the unknowns around the virus, IVF was being categorized as an “optional procedure,” which many felt further stigmatized the experiences of those with infertility.
Clinics started to re-open in the spring of 2020, and the benefits of telemedicine for those undergoing IVF became increasingly clear. In normal times, people undergoing fertility treatment regularly traveled to and from their clinic for appointments, which can cause disruption, stress, and pressure within their personal and professional lives. The pandemic also posed an opportunity for digital health solutions to play an essential role in helping patients remain involved in their treatment and connected to their doctor, reducing some of the impacts of local challenges such as distancing or clinic closures.
Experiences and lifestyle changes resulting from the pandemic have led to a greater focus on family building and fertility preservation. This shift has empowered EMD Serono to consider a digital health ecosystem that can help patients feel more involved, and better taken care of, throughout their fertility journey. The hope is to one day enable remote monitoring to further improve the treatment experience and outcomes, as well as provide healthcare professionals with real-time access to the clinical status of their patients, allowing them to monitor the patient response to fertility treatment whenever needed.