HEALTHCARE: Pharmas face the future

Despite employing vast numbers and saving lives, pharma firms are often treated as no better than arms or tobacco firms. Mary Cowlett reports on steps big pharma is taking to change that

The UK pharmaceutical industry is big business, employing around 65,000 people and generating the economy's third largest trade surplus - equal to £2.6bn in 2002. Indeed, according to government figures released in December 2003, British-based pharma firms are far and away the highest investors in research and development in the UK, devoting more than a fifth of their turnover, a hefty £9m each day.

Public perceptions of drugs companies, however, tell a different story.

In 2003, criticism from the British Medical Journal and Channel 4's Dying for Drugs attacked firms' incentives for doctors and their developing world drugs policies, while further questions were raised about industry backing of patient groups.

But it remains a profitable industry. According to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry's (ABPI) latest figures (2002) regarding total market sales, GlaxoSmithKline is the market leader in the UK, holding 11.8 per cent share of the primary care market (prescription and OTC medicines not dispensed in hospitals), and 11.2 per cent share of the total market.

The top ten also includes global players such as Pfizer, Merck & Co, Roche and Novartis.

What's new for 2004

In the year ahead, product launches and licence extensions are high on the agenda of these firms' corporate strategies, as are wider industry concerns. Unsurprisingly, top of the concerns list are the forthcoming negotiations with the Department of Health around the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS). Patient access to medicines, and the ever-shifting NHS and regulatory environment are also recurring themes. And, in an era when many high-earning brands are falling off patent, and drug pipelines are feeling the pinch, a longer-term concern for the industry is the impact of increasing generic competition.

Hampshire-based Lilly UK - at number ten in the ABPI's leading UK pharmaceutical corporations - is poised to deliver eight new products in 2004, following last year's successful launch of male anti-impotence medicine Cialis and breakthrough osteoporosis treatment Forsteo.

This includes some broadening of indications for existing medicines.

However, Lilly UK director of corporate affairs Maxine Taylor, who heads a team of 20, claims the sheer number of launches underlines the strength of her company's drugs pipeline. 'Increasingly across Europe there is more focus on cost rather than value, which may mean that, in the future, it will be very difficult to launch some products in some markets,' she adds.

Lilly is already successful in the treatment areas of schizophrenia, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, erectile dysfunction, severe sepsis, depression and infections. But, as a medium-sized fish in a cut-throat pond, Lilly is reluctant to reveal details of its corporate strategy for the coming 11 months.

However, its communications team, who cover areas such as public affairs, internal comms, product comms, health technology appraisal, brand management, CSR and community relations, will be addressing issues that effect the trading environment.

These include the regulatory agenda in the UK and Brussels and the ever-increasing workload needed to get medicines' endorsement from NICE and the Scottish Medicines Consortium.

Yet Taylor remains concerned about perceptions of drugs companies as a whole. 'Many pharma firms have been doing good CSR work over recent years, but we need to do more to publicise this work and improve the image of the pharma industry,' she says.

Novartis corporate affairs director Jo Taylor, who heads a PR team of seven, echoes these concerns about CSR. Encouragingly, the UK comms team already publicises the company's charitable works, including the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development, which provides treatment programmes and drugs at cost to developing world countries.

Indeed, this year's underlying theme for Novartis, whose principal treatment areas are primary care, oncology, ophthalmology and organ transplantation, is responsible innovation.

Research and development

Taylor says this vision was initiated by the launch of the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research, which opened in Cambridge, Massachusets in 2003: 'This year's news is that we want to push forward on biomedical research as much as possible.'

This strategy is set to highlight the Swiss pharma giant's commitment to invest $4bn (£2.2bn) in R&D over the next ten years, while promoting specific pipeline products, including a new treatment for hepatitis B.

In addition, plans are currently being laid in the UK, for the annual community partnership day, which saw more than 100 employees transform the gardens at the local Frimley Park hospital in Surrey last April.

Key priorities for the internal relations team are the in-house intranet, magazines, and all associate meetings, where staff have the opportunity to meet the chief execuitve and members of the board. Meanwhile, the government relations function works on influencer programmes aimed at MPs, civil servants, trade bodies and think tanks.

Franco-German firm Aventis Pharma, on the other hand, has an unusual comms structure in the UK, whereby the bulk of its PR function sits within its individual brand teams.

'Rather than building on the corporate brand name alone, we promote the Aventis brand through the products,' says Aventis director of strategy and public affairs Jacqueline Holding, who heads a PR team of two plus brand PR personnel.

Naturally, company issues that are local to the UK fall within Holding's remit - based in West Malling, Kent - although the firm's overall strategy is driven from its headquarters in Strasbourg. Here, a large corporate affairs department handles matters such as last month's rejection of £33bn hostile takeover bid by French rival pharma firm Sanofi-Synthelabo.

Within the brand teams, the main communications aim is to provide better treatment, access and information for patients. This involves working with prescribers, politicians, patient groups and purchasers, within main treatment areas of diabetes, hypertension, oncology, osteoporosis, allergies and antibiotics.

However, broader issues that effect the business environment, such as the PPRS, are addressed in collaboration with trade and industry bodies, including the ABPI and the London and Thames Valley Pharmaceutical Group.

Widely acknowledged as having a strong drugs pipeline, the firm's cardiovascular treatment Tritace fell off patent in the UK last month. However, Aventis is hoping to launch a rapid acting insulin treatment, branded Apidra, later in the year.

With CSR and the wider industry concerns the key areas major pharma corporations are concentrating on, 2004 could well be the year public perceptions of the industry improve.

CORPORATE PROFILE - PFIZER

Kavanagh: trust

Pfizer recently re-organised its PR function around stakeholder groups, addressing the media, government and devolved parliaments, those responsible for patient access to medicines and the community. In addition, one member of the comms team is responsible for managing PR programmes that fit across the various functions, while internal comms is now handled by the HR department.

'A critical issue for 2004 is building trust with stakeholders,' says director of corporate and PA Miranda Kavanagh, who adds that the whole industry could do with engaging public opinion more constructively.

With several products, including blood pressure drug Istin coming off patent in the UK this year, the US pharma giant is focused on its organisational effectiveness and revenue streams.As the only drugs firm to have signed up to the UN Global Compact on responsible corporate citizenship, CSR remains a major focus, with a UK-specific programme to be introduced this year. And, following the merger with Pharmacia last summer, Pfizer now has one of the widest drugs portfolios in the business, from cardiovascular treatments to oncology.

PR team: 30

Remit: Corporate comms, government relations, patient access, corporate social responsibility and programme management

Location: Tadworth, Surrey

Treatment areas: Cardiovascular; pain management; mental health; men and women's health and hospital products

CORPORATE PROFILE - WYETH

Markham: strong

With a lower profile than many of its rivals, Wyeth is aming to boost its image as a forward-thinking firm. The US pharma giant has almost doubled UK sales in the past five years and corporate affairs director Gill Markham says: 'Now that we've got ourselves into a strong position, we're looking to promote not only the products we have, but also what Wyeth is about.'

The firm is keen to take a leading role on many industry issues, including patient access to medicines and changing work practices within the NHS.

'For example, there are still difficulties around the implementation of NICE guidance and overcoming the problems of postcode prescribing, whereby doctors have to make clinical decisions but balance these with budgetary demands,' she says.

The corporate affairs team has established a range of partnerships, including working with the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society. And the NHS and government affairs function is increasingly talking with the newly empowered PCT managers and NHS pharmacy and nurse prescribers. Worldwide, Wyeth also invests $2bn (£1m) per year on R&D.

PR team: 12

Remit: NHS and government affairs, products and disease awareness, internal comms

Location: Taplow, Berkshire

Treatment areas: Organ transplantation, haemophilia, depression; women's health, gastroenterology, infant nutrition, paediatric vaccines, hospital antibiotics and oncology.

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