The pharmaceutical industry gets a lot of bad press. Much of it is admittedly deserved; when you are in the business of putting stuff into people’s bodies, the slightest unethical behaviour must be dealt with, rapidly and transparently.
As medical communicators we adhere to a code that puts the wellbeing of patients first, and commit to transparency and integrity. Our activities or materials must never ‘bring discredit upon, or reduce confidence in, the pharmaceutical industry’. But mistakes get made, and there are, sadly, bad faith actors, and the perception of the industry suffers.
But it’s not just internal mistakes or unethical behaviour that contribute to the perception. Beliefs around what the pharma industry is or does – despite our best efforts – are often wrong or dangerous. People think that the price of treatment is too high, and while in the USA they might have a point, the cost of drug development is eye-wateringly expensive. And while, yes, it’s nice to have a comfortable salary and to be able to feed my children, people who work in the industry do it because they are committed to improving the health of our fellow human beings.
The situation has changed a bit recently. The development and rollout of multiple highly effective vaccines against COVID-19 has been a medical success, and seems to have had a positive effect on industry perception (at least for certain companies).
This isn’t just an exercise in vanity. How people perceive the industry can have a direct effect on outcomes. I could point to my neighbour’s 12-year-old goddaughter, left an orphan because her mother’s ‘alternative’ friends persuaded her not to have chemo for her breast cancer. We could talk about the people who distrust the industry so much that they refuse a COVID-19 vaccine, endangering themselves and others.
The success of the COVID-19 vaccination programmes depended and continues to depend on the ability of private enterprise to rapidly scale up development and manufacturing. It also depends on trust – as for any medicine, you have to be able to trust that this stuff going into your body is going to do what it is claimed to do.
How do we build that trust? The answer is not less scrutiny, but more of it. Let people see what goes on in Pharma, what their prescriptions pay for; how companies juggle increasing development costs with limited patent protection (and calls to give up intellectual property entirely); the legal and regulatory frameworks they operate in. Hold not just the companies, but also the regulators to account.
And for those of us in the medical communication sector, we must continue to act with the utmost integrity and transparency, with honesty and, above all, accuracy. The medical information we provide and the claims we help our clients to make need to be not just true, but verifiably so. Helping physicians to help patients is our job, and we can all do our bit to be ready for the next pandemic.
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