2020 has been a watershed year for every company in the industry – and for Nicole Farmer, general manager for the UK & Ireland at Sanofi Genzyme, that meant moving into a pharma leadership role at a time when things couldn’t be more uncertain.
Nevertheless, Farmer – who was appointed in May at the height of COVID-19 – says that her main goals when coming into the company hadn’t changed due to the pandemic.
These goals were: creating an environment where people have the courage to be proactive and not wait to be told what to do; pushing beyond current limitations; and keeping customers and patients at the heart of why Sanofi does what it does.
Luckily, the company has found ways to keep working towards these objectives despite COVID disruption – proving that big pharma companies can be more adaptive than outside observers might expect.
On the patient side of things, for example, there were many decisions the company had to take quickly in order to help and protect their health during lockdown. Some patients’ monthly home deliveries were switched to three-monthly to reduce resources and minimise their contact with others, and Sanofi also increased its home blood-taking services to free up hospital resources and help shield patients.
Meanwhile, the company worked closely with the NHS and private healthcare providers, particularly for oncology medicines to explore locations that would enable people with cancer to continue with their treatments in a safe place.
Sanofi is part of the alliance with the ABPI and other healthcare organisations supporting the Life Sciences Recovery Roadmap – a commitment from the industry to fight COVID-19, support patients and build a more resilient healthcare sector in the UK.
In particular, Farmer says Sanofi is working to improve access to the medicines that cancer patients desperately need – and she wants to see this level of dialogue between pharma, the government and the NHS continue after the pandemic.
“Serving patients’ needs and delivering them the best possible treatment is at the core of both the NHS and the pharmaceutical industry’s work, so it’s disappointing sometimes to feel we sit on opposite sides of the table.”
“We should continue working closely together, bringing synergy and innovation to the healthcare sector.”
Farmer adds that a key consideration for future discussions to aid patient centricity will be improving reimbursement systems.
“It’s a thorny subject, but for me, working in speciality care and across a number of rare diseases, I feel that we need to have another look at how we assess the value that medicines bring and how medicines are approved in the UK, especially when serving ultra-small populations.”
“We need to get to a point where no disease is seen as too small to treat.”
She says that progress is being made, but there is still quite some way to go.
“With Brexit, the MHRA has a great opportunity to fast-track licences ahead of EMEA, enabling us to start collecting real world evidence to shape access in the rest of Europe, so more people can benefit. However, there is no point racing ahead with a licence if reimbursement is not forthcoming.”
Another key goal for the company when it comes to patients is to further improve support around adherence.
Starting on any new treatment can be challenging, as there can be initial side effects which are difficult to deal with. Finding better ways to support our patients through this time is essential, in order for people to gain the longer-term benefits.
Meanwhile, Farmer adds that Sanofi is aiming to boost data gathering for products in real world settings, which can inform and shape understanding of patient responses and hopefully enable better decision making.
In fact, Sanofi’s recently-launched app to monitor skin conditions takes this idea of dual support literally, with versions for both patients and HCPs.
“The HCP version makes it a lot easier for them to measure the extent and severity of their patients’ skin conditions,” Farmer explains.
She adds that it is important to recognise that patients, patient groups and healthcare professionals are the “true experts”, and to listen to their unique insights into what types of resources and solutions will be most valuable to people with the disease.
“We need to do this from beginning to end, during research and development, clinical trial design and drug delivery, as well as disease education, awareness and management, and ongoing support services.”
His brief, Farmer says, is to drive Sanofi’s digital, data and technology strategy in order to improve the company’s offering to healthcare professionals and patients.
Internally, the company wants to ensure that teams are fully briefed on any new digital technology rolled out in the organisation.
This includes video conferencing tools, which Sanofi had already rolled out across the organisation before the pandemic hit, in order to encourage more collaborative working.
However, as the pandemic drew on, the company actually aimed to reduce employees’ reliance on such technologies.
“We proactively supported wellbeing and moved away from video conferences, encouraging more walk-and-talk phone calls,” Farmer explains.
“When possible, we have met for socially distanced walking meetings, and we reopened our office to enable those who would benefit from being there to come into a COVID-safe work environment.
Likewise, Farmer feels that companies will need to think carefully about the wider changes they want to keep post-COVID and which ones they want to discard.
“We needed to adopt new ways of working through necessity at first, but now I see many of them being embraced to support efficiency. COVID-19 adaptation has accelerated some great changes, but also had some negative impacts too. There are some things we will keep and some things where we will return to our older ways of working.”
“One of my great learnings is to see how agile Sanofi can be, how quickly we can adapt to the changing needs of our patients, our customers and our people. That agility is certainly something I want us to hold on to.”
Nicole is currently the general manager for Sanofi Genzyme UK&IE, the specialty business unit of Sanofi. She joined Sanofi Genzyme in 2016 as head of the MS franchise, where she continued to build on the success of Lemtrada and develop Aubagio further. She then moved on to lead the MS franchise for Europe for two years before returning to the UK&IE business in her new role, in May 2020. Before joining Sanofi Genzyme, Nicole spent two years with Baxter, where she led the spin-out of the bioscience business to form Baxalta, where she was the UK managing director. Prior to this, Nicole spent 26 years at Bayer.
George Underwood is a senior member of the pharmaphorum editorial team, having previously worked at PharmaTimes and prior to this at Pharmafocus. He is a trained journalist, with a degree from Bournemouth University and current specialisms that include R&D, digital and M&A.