By Chris Ross, Pf Editor
At the height of the political expenses scandal in 2009, a national survey found that only one UK profession was trusted less than MPs – and that was journalists. Naturally, I blame Roger Cook, Panorama and the local reporters on the Walford Gazette. Two years later and it seems little has changed. The News of the World has accepted liability in the hacking of a handful of celebrities’ phones and, once again, the ‘good’ name of journalism is being dragged through the mud. And so hacks all over the country face a mighty challenge to regain the trust of the public – if they ever had it in the first place. Yes, I know, let’s get the violins out.
But trust, in any profession, is a vital component. The pharmaceutical industry knows this only too well – it’s been battling the issue for many years. If the papers are to be believed (oh, the irony!) there are few industries trusted less than pharma. The ‘bad’ press has been giving the drug sector a bad press for eons. And, as the industry’s main mechanism for getting messages to market, medical sales professionals are often accused of being at the root of the problem. “Trust me, I’m a drug rep,” doesn’t sound terribly convincing.
In 2009, Pf ran an interview with former ABPI President Chris Brinsmead, who said that the future role of the field force would be to facilitate NHS/industry partnerships – but for that to succeed, the industry would need to address the issue of trust among its customer-base. He said that the sector, and indeed sales professionals, must look at its ‘behaviours’ and be open and transparent in its engagement with the NHS.
On the face of it, the industry has done this – and continues to work hard to build levels of trust with its customers. But is the message being heard? Perhaps not. A recent online poll showed that readers of Pharmaceutical Field identified customers’ lack of trust in the industry as the biggest barrier to facilitating NHS/industry partnerships. A clear majority (61%) of medical sales professionals cite trust as the key issue blighting the NHS/industry relationship, with only 7% claiming there are no barriers at all.
Cynics will argue that this is simply a convenient smokescreen to explain a lack of real progress in developing the partnership agenda: “It’s not my fault. I’m trying to collaborate with my customers, but they just don’t trust the industry.”
After all, perception is nine tenths of the law – and if the general perception is that doctors don’t trust the pharmaceutical industry, it’s a pretty safe excuse to hide behind. But pharmaceutical sales professionals should be better than that.
The issue of a lack of trust between sales rep and doctor is, quite possibly, an outdated red herring. Historically there have been some strong relationships between clinicians and pharma. There has been a lot of contact, healthy dialogue and genuine collaboration. Arguably, the barrier has been at NHS management level (chiefly in PCTs) where, it would seem, a deeper scepticism of industry still exists. The challenge has been to put the trust into the Primary Care Trust, but, for the industry, it appears that success has been limited.
The NHS landscape is, of course, changing. Assuming the government’s stuttering reform programme survives parliament, PCTs will soon disappear into the sunset and new healthcare decision-makers will emerge. The opportunities for progress are there now.
The austerity era and the need to find efficiencies is driving a greater need for partnership working between the NHS and industry, and, as such, the willingness to work together will no doubt grow. In turn, sales professionals must continue to demonstrate their value in the delivery of healthcare and build transparent and honest business-to-business relationships with their customers.
Hiding behind old and clichéd stereotypes will get us nowhere.
This is, of course, just my view. But as you know, you can trust me, I’m a journalist.
Contact the author: email@example.com