Posted: 18 May. 2021 10 min. read

Will the pandemic lead to an image makeover for the biopharma sector?

By Greg Reh, Global Life Sciences & Health Care leader, Deloitte Consulting LLP, and Leena Gupta, manager, Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, Deloitte Services, LP

Public trust in biopharmaceutical companies hit an all-time low in 2019, ranking below oil, banking, and even the federal government, according to a Gallup poll.1 The development of therapies and vaccines to treat and prevent COVID-19 might have helped buoy the public image of biopharmaceutical companies. But that lift could be temporary.

Why is it important that the public trust biopharmaceutical companies and their products? Trust is often seen as an underpinning factor for the successful launch, distribution, and acceptance of new therapies and vaccines. Moreover, skepticism about drugs or drug manufacturers could negatively impact public health and might threaten future progress, which relies on clinical research.

Early this year, Deloitte’s US and UK Centers for Health Solutions conducted virtual focus groups in four countries—India, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States—to find out why biopharma companies are often distrusted and to determine how the sector might rehabilitate its image.

Health care is typically viewed as a right, not a luxury

Our focus-group participants tended to see health care as a right rather than an indulgence. Some people are willing spend money on a luxury car or the latest smartphone, but the price of those products (and the profits generated by the manufacturers) typically have little impact on public trust. By contrast, people perceive that biopharmaceutical companies make money from people who are sick. Although medical practices also make money by treating people who are sick, nearly three out of four consumers surveyed ranked physicians as their most trusted sources of information for health conditions and treatment. This could be tied to the personalized experience patients typically have when meeting with a doctor. About half of respondents (48%) said they will take a prescription drug because they trust their physician.

Virtual focus-group respondents from all four countries pointed to high prices and a lack of transparency as their top reasons for not trusting biopharmaceutical companies. This was true even in the UK where the government-run health system shields consumers from the cost of most drugs.

In the US, prior to the pandemic, consumers who were concerned about the high cost of drugs prompted the White House and Congress to push policies to reduce drug prices and to increase price transparency. During his April 28 State of the Union Address, President Biden highlighted the need to reduce prescription drug costs. He had previously talked about the appeal of the German system for setting drug prices, which ties prices in part to a measurement of their value. Such a policy would require legislation to implement, as our colleague Anne Phelps noted in a recent blog.

COVID-19 vaccines helped bolster pharma’s image

About one in four consumers in the US and South Africa said the development of COVID-19 vaccines improved their trust in pharmaceutical companies. In the UK, nearly half (45%) of surveyed consumers said vaccine-development improved their trust. However, some respondents said the development of the vaccines actually eroded their trust in those companies. Those participants pointed to adverse events that might be tied to COVID-19 therapies and vaccines, and media reports that questioned their safety and efficacy during clinical trials. However, some respondents expressed an appreciation for the way competing biopharma companies found a way to collaborate with each other and with government agencies to develop safe and effective vaccines quickly and make them available to the public. As Greg noted in a blog last year, developing a vaccine for COVID-19 required collaboration on an unprecedented scale. Survey participants said that more publicly available information about safety and efficacy of vaccines (63%) as well as assurance from their personal doctor (55%) could increase their trust in vaccines.

Four elements of a successful communications strategy

COVID-19 is providing biopharmaceutical manufacturers with an opportunity to build trust. Improving trust can improve consumers’ health if they trust the medications that are designed to help with their conditions. Along with conducting virtual focus groups, we also interviewed five US-based public relations and communications professionals from the biopharma industry. Communications between those companies and their customers was seen as being key to building trust. Here are four strategies they suggested:

  1. Encourage company leaders to be more visible: People connect with other people, not with companies. Strong leaders from the biopharmaceutical sector can showcase their humanity by telling stories, sharing personal reasons for working in the industry, and being vocal about the value their products bring to patients. Experts said that consumers haven’t historically heard strong stories or seen much of a presence from biopharma leaders and/or scientists—unlike those from big tech companies. But that trend is beginning to change, particularly as consumers pay more attention to innovation in science.
  2.  Cultivate partnerships: The most trustworthy organizations tend to be most successful at building relationships with other types of entities (e.g., consumer groups, foundations, academia) that in turn help improve trust in the company’s name. Working closely with clinicians, pharmacists, and patient-advocacy groups to educate patients about products might also help improve trust.
  3. Build analytic capabilities: Advanced analytics could help biopharma companies determine areas where distrust exists. Consumer surveys, especially those that measure trust-building actions for humanity, transparency, reliability, and capability might also be useful. These can provide data to benchmark trust in a company or a brand relative to another and over time.
  4. Listen to consumers: Companies should leverage digital technology and presence—including maintaining a patient-centric website—to engage with patients, who will be actively living with and discussing their conditions through a variety of forums. It’s worthwhile to be a part of those conversations, whether through social media, apps, or other channels, and to respond to concerns and queries appropriately.
  5. Hold ‘bad actors’ accountable: It is important for the industry to band together—in a timely fashion—when so-called bad actors in biopharma appear. This can demonstrate accountability for behaviors or practices that are not representative of how the rest of the overall industry wants to, or plans to, operate.

Trust can help build brand loyalty

About 80% of our respondents said that if they take a prescription drug, they are likely to trust that brand or product. However, more than one-third of consumers said they don’t know which company manufacturers their prescription drugs. The vast majority of surveyed consumers said they are “very likely” (57%) or “somewhat likely (24%) to ask their physician or pharmacist for a particular brand they trust and are likely to choose those trusted brands over drugs from a competing company. People are also likely to use social media to comment on the drugs or the drug companies they trust.

Consumers often trust pharmaceutical brands more than the companies that produce them, according to Deloitte's HX Trust IDTM report. We surveyed 4,000 US consumers and asked them to assess their trust of branded products in life sciences, health care, technology, retail, travel, hospitality, and government. We found that brands tend to be viewed more favorably by consumers when companies demonstrate humanity, transparency, capability, and reliability.

Biopharma companies are often held to a high standard when it comes to motive and profit. Building trust can be a critical pathway to demonstrating the true value that biopharma companies offer while also being accountable to shareholders and stakeholders. According to a recent report from the public relations firm Edelman, sentiment toward biopharma has improved since 2018, likely due to the industry’s contribution to the greater good. The pandemic has provided the industry with an opportunity to take advantage of this momentum to remake its image.

Endnotes:

1. Public trust in drugmakers is at an all-time low. Can biopharma recover?, BioPharmaDIVE, September 11, 2019

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