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When a loved one is ill, the benefits which the pharmaceutical industry brings to society are thrown into sharp relief. Cheryl Lubbert, President, CEO & Co-Owner of Health Perspectives Group, understands this perfectly through personal experience: her father has Parkinson’s disease.
“Developments in the last couple of years have allowed him to continue to function,” she explains. “That’s what inspires me. Without scientific curiosity, that would not have happened. It’s what makes pharma really special. Pharma doesn’t always get credit for all the work they do.”
Lubbert was aware of all this beforehand, but perhaps in a slightly more indirect way. She has spent her career in pharma, heading the Immunology Division at Abbott Laboratories, with responsibilities including the blockbuster Humira. She has also held management positions at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Immunex and Amgen.
While in these senior roles, she saw that executives, researchers and marketers were mainly focused on doctors – in part because they saw them as primary healthcare decision makers but also because they felt it was difficult to engage patients directly in a compliant manner.
I’ve come to think that the biopharma industry isn’t any different from any other industry. You have to understand what customers want and what they need: think about it that way and start from there.
This is a common issue - many in pharma still regard the doctor as their customer rather than the patient – but it still represents something of a disconnect between what people in pharma say and what pharma companies actually do.
Conscious of an opportunity to address the problem, Lubbert left Big Pharma and co-founded Health Perspectives Group, which has a mission to enable direct engagement between pharma companies and patients. Her mantra is: ‘What’s good for the patient is good for the company.’ Seasoned pharma observers have heard such sentiments a lot over the last couple of years but Lubbert believes she can make a difference.
“Physicians play a crucial role but they are intermediaries,” she explains. “We now have access to so much information – patients are more savvy about what’s available and can make the best decisions about their health and their families’ health. I’ve come to think that the biopharma industry isn’t any different from any other industry. You have to understand what customers want and what they need: think about it that way and start from there.”
She points out that pharma is now not simply talking about patient centricity but actually doing something about it by appointing heads of patient centricity, or creating centers of excellence. “The most telling thing is that, a year ago at conferences, people were asking: ‘Should we be doing this?’ And now everyone has tried at least one thing. We are moving in the right direction.”
She believes it is possible to embed the ethos of patient centricity into a company’s DNA, in part by conducting on a day-to-day basis internal conversations around what the patient requires and considering closely how your actions will be perceived and received by patients and caregivers. “Then it becomes part of the vernacular, it is not just words on paper anymore,” she says. “You ask these questions every day in every meeting and planning session and the organization sees that, and so it changes the DNA.”
In short, patients should be at the heart of a company’s corporate communications, and commercial and clinical activities. “It’s not optional,” she insists.
To achieve this, inspiration and practical ideas can come – indeed, perhaps, should come - from outside pharma as well as inside. “It is good to learn from other industries,” she says. “For example, a good analogy is in consumer packaged goods where they understand both retail outlets and the ultimate customer. They build an internal infrastructure – and the same thing applies to biopharma, which has started to evolve that way. It’s not just about the healthcare provider, it’s about the consumer. We need to show companies the way to do things easily and consistently, creating the infrastructure to make this part of their everyday lives.”
It takes time. Centralized program ownership is important: they are not the only group that engages with patients but that central control over procedures makes it turnkey.
Revolution is not required. “It’s more of an evolution, not a radical restructure,” she suggests. One of the keys to embedding a patient-centric infrastructure is to build a compliance system that will help keep patient data secure. The next step is to use advanced technology and communication methodologies to create customized patient-centric programs.
She also advocates setting up a central hub - in effect a ‘patient centricity department’ – to make it easier to engage patients on a regular basis. “That infrastructure doesn’t happen overnight,” she admits. “It takes time. Centralized program ownership is important: they are not the only group that engages with patients but that central control over procedures makes it turnkey.”
Another of the main success factors is that companies need to have senior management backing in words and resources. “Company awareness of procedures is also critical,” Lubbert points out. “If they don’t know the resources are available then they can’t use them.”
If you build an emotional connection with the consumer then they are four times more likely to use your product.
So to the $64 million question: can we put a return on investment (ROI) figure on patient centricity? If not, how do we measure it and persuade other pharma companies to engage in it? Here, Lubbert is implacable. “I really think we should not think of patient centricity or engagement in terms of ROI,” she says simply. “We are talking about health and lives and it is hard to balance ROI with that. Instead, we should think about ROR – ‘return on relationship’. Companies are improving and saving patients’ lives. I’d suggest that, from a reputation standpoint, pharma is an industry that has been challenged.”
She cites research which suggests that just 4.7% of women and 18.7% of men trust pharma. “If you build an emotional connection with the consumer then they are four times more likely to use your product,” she says. This means that pharma must demonstrate what it is about: improving health, shared values, better outcomes. This will create more trust, perhaps leading to better adherence. “ROI plays out in loyalty,” she says. “These are our brothers, sisters, mothers.”
Such a long-term view of patients’ importance to a company should dovetail with the very things that shareholders are most concerned about, she argues.
A large biopharma group with which Health Perspectives worked began the process by looking in the mirror. “They were very siloed, with some departments incorporating patient feedback and some not,” Lubbert explains. “Some were reactive, some were proactive. With full management support, we helped them build a center of excellence, aligning decision makers, developing company-wide standards and communications processes. It was easier for everyone to engage patients in the right way.”
Clinical co-creation working sessions were set up, putting patients and clinical trial recruiters face to face. “We were able to map out their journeys and bring together the pain points,” she says.
Elsewhere, Health Perspectives has helped companies build speaker bureaux in multiple sclerosis, allowing patients share experiences and support with fellow patients. It has also encouraged the setting up of patient councils and mentoring programs which use technology to connect patients, allowing companies to learn from their insights.
Lubbert’s switch from high-profile pharma exec to small start-up is an unusual one and her take on the different skills this requires is insightful. “In larger companies, the processes are in place and they are refined,” she begins. “That makes them great places to learn about training, marketing, and business in general. In smaller companies, you have to wear a lot more hats and that forces you to prioritize. You don’t always have time to think about longer-term planning, but on the flipside, you can be more nimble.”
This agility is something which many corporate behemoths are trying to inculcate in their own way. “Some bigger companies are accessing the best of both worlds by building smaller teams within, which can work well within that overall framework,” she suggests. “But most of my career has been about launching and growing – and that’s one of the times that size doesn’t matter. During those phases, the challenges between big and small are exactly the same, just maybe on a slightly different scale.”
While there is no blueprint for achieving patient centricity – since every company is at a different stage of its development - the first step is to make that honest assessment of where you are. “How are you already working with patients?” Lubbert asks. “What are you doing or not doing? Where are you in the landscape? How can you streamline what you are doing? If everyone is putting their right foot forward then you have to ask: ‘Okay, how can we do this?’”
Passion for science
Her commitment to patient centricity does not leave a lot of time for outside interests. But she is well aware that everyone needs to switch off from time to time in order to continue to be effective. “I do work a lot,” she agrees. “I’m passionate about what I do and that doesn’t really allow much time for much else.” To relax, she spends time a world away from pharma at her and her husband’s farm and orchard, which boasts bucolic delights such as sheep, pears and cider apples. “It is a little piece of paradise near Seattle,” she laughs. “It’s a good way to reset and refresh.”
But the lure of her mission is never far away. Lubbert’s enthusiasm for the patient centricity process, and its potential results – and even for the power of science itself - is infectious. “I have a science background: the whole reason I got into the industry was because I love science,” she says. “Biopharma is applied science: scientists and researchers make a difference to people. Opening up that two-way dialog, we can get to faster understanding and respect between one another. We can only win – it keeps me going every day.”
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