The performance of the pharma industry is under scrutiny like never before as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, with countries in desperate need of vaccines and therapies to protect the population and allow normal life to resume.
WEGO Health, a worldwide network of over 100,000 patient leaders, has revealed how far the industry has to go before it wins over the population at large.
A new survey from the company deals with how perceptions have changed over the last five years, which have been tumultuous in terms of the reputation of the industry.
Pricing scandals have involved some of the biggest names in pharma as well as small players who were caught manipulating the costs of generic drugs.
This has weighed on some patients’ perception of the industry, according to WEGO Health. Results from the survey of 217 patients showed a fairly even split – 27% said perceptions had not changed, while 37% said the industry’s reputation had suffered and 36% said it was more positive.
Findings from WEGO Health followed a report from FutureBrand at the beginning of August showing that perception of pharma and medical product companies has improved markedly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Roche, AstraZeneca, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi have all shot up the rankings in the first edition of the FutureBrand Index since the start of the coronavirus crisis.
The WEGO Health survey findings gave patients an opportunity to elaborate on their answers, and it is no surprise that pricing is a problem for those who have to contribute from their own pockets.
One patient reliant on intravenous infusions to stay alive said it was “upsetting to see companies increase the cost of life saving medications that were previously affordable in order to make a profit”.
Another said that “unreasonable price increases in the face of large corporate profits don’t create confidence”.
Other issues raised in the free text section relate to the opioid crisis in the US, where pharma companies have been implicated for mis-selling addictive painkillers.
On the positive side, respondents listed personal interactions with pharma companies, while others noted they are becoming better at engaging with patients.
One noted that “Pharmas have finally begun to engage with patients early in the process of clinical trial development.”
This enables patients to influence pharma companies to produce “truly meaningful treatments”, they said.
Another said that although pharma companies are “money hungry” they are prepared to help those on low incomes.
The free text responses suggest that pharma companies are able to create a positive perception when efforts to engage with patients are going well.
WEGO Health’s survey asked respondents to rank which information source had the most influence on their perception of industry.
They were asked to rank five different information sources in terms of importance, with patient online communities scoring the highest, followed by healthcare professionals, press or media stories, friends and family, and social media.
This could be an encouraging finding for pharma, as trusted advisors like patient communities and HCPs are key stakeholders that they can foster relationships with and grow trust among.
The survey also identified three companies that are head and shoulders above the rest in terms of their positive perception in patients who had worked directly with them.
Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson fared the best with scores of 21, 22 and 23 respectively.
This score was considerably higher than the next on the list, which was Abbott Laboratories with a score of 14.
Working with a pharma company is also a clear predictor of a positive response – 57% of respondents who worked with a drug company walked away with a positive experience, 33% had a neutral experience and only 10% had a negative view.
Respondents listed the industry’s achievements in R&D as the area where the most progress has been made in the last five years.
It was the landslide winner, cited by 29% of those questioned, during a period which has seen the first gene therapies marketed, as well as innovations such as CAR-T.
Other areas of progress were patient support programmes (17%) and disease management (16%).
The industry has also made progress with patient education, according to 14% of respondents.
But there were inconclusive responses to the area where respondents thought that progress was lacking with similar responses for all the main categories.
Looking forward, the survey found that respondents expect the trend towards personalised medicine to continue, with 34% listing this area as the most promising in terms of health innovation.
Genetic screening was listed as important by 22% of respondents, followed by digital health technology such as wearables and apps (16%) and digital medicine products (11%).
There was also a clear message about how pharma should be setting out its priorities in the coming years.
Lowering the cost of medications was listed as being the most important area for improvement, an unsurprising conclusion given the comments about changing perception over the last five years.
Developing new treatment options, and medicines with fewer side effects were also important, although there was less support for better disease management and communication about existing treatments.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the largest public health challenge in a generation it also gives pharma an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to produce innovative solutions to changing health needs around the world.
WEGO Health’s findings on pricing will come as no surprise – but the industry is at a critical juncture where it can win over hearts and minds as it strives for effective drugs against cancer and other deadly diseases, as well as the coronavirus scourge.
For more information on this survey, visit WEGO Health’s website to download the full findings report
All infographics courtesy of WEGO Health
Richard Staines is senior reporter at pharmaphorum. He has been a journalist since the 1990s and has written for websites, newspapers and magazines. He has always had an interest in health, and has been focusing on the pharma industry since 2010, interviewing industry leaders and covering stories on topics including regulation, mergers and acquisitions, and the latest clinical developments.