Most people don’t know it, but pharma is everywhere.
It’s in our films, books, music, and even in our medicine cabinets. Culturally, pharma is as ubiquitous as tea or Apple.
When five-time grand slam champion, Maria Sharapova, recently stood before a lectern – and a stunned global audience – to perform a toe-curling, hopelessly stage-managed ‘confession’, it placed pharma firmly on the front page. Not that anyone outside pharma would necessarily see it.
While the Russian superstar strained every sinew to look sad-eyed, doleful, apologetic and – most challengingly – human, most of the world saw this as simply a ‘doping scandal’ or, even, a tennis story. But, actually, and intriguingly, this was a pharma tale of our times.
Sharapova’s failed drug test had been the result of the heart condition drug, Mildronate (aka Meldonium), being found, during a routine blood test in Australia. The discovery, its consequences and the sequence of events – taking place over a decade – leading up to the exposure, made it a story firmly entrenched in a bizarre healthcare labyrinth.
It should be pointed out that the medication in question has been, historically, used to help people with heart conditions to recover; usually over a six-week prescribed course. The treatment provides improved blood flow; essential to a patient’s survival. Why, then, was an incredibly fit, young athlete taking a heart condition medication, since 2006!?
Let’s assume, for a second, that it was being used to speed up recovery times, in a person without a heart condition – that a legitimate, legal pharmaceutical product was being used for something other than which it was intended, in order to achieve results it was not designed for. Some might suggest that this is doping in its purest form – enlisting a synthetic solution to the age-old problem of exhaustion. Or, in this case, perhaps, the age-old problem of Serena Williams (Sharapova has an ego-sapping, ‘heartbreaking’ head-to-head of 19-2 against her). Enough to drive anyone to a ‘meld-down’, you might say.
There were also some fascinating linguistics used in order to yield public sympathy. In her press conference Sharapova made it clear that this was a drug prescribed by her ‘family doctor’. To the untrained ear this was – not a fabricated and cynical PR stunt – but
a claim that, just like you and I, she has to book an appointment with the 'family doctor', wait in the family doctor’s ghastly waiting room, while reading the family doctor’s well-thumbed copies of Bella, from 2009. She’s just like you and I, making the pilgrimage to the family doctor, and picking up a prescription from the family doctor. What could be more normal?
Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a globe-trotting team of fully-qualified, full-time health professionals looking after my every nutritional and medicinal need.
This story will run, and it won’t end well for Sharapova, but it does serve to remind us – industry folk – that we are often woven into the fabric of mainstream stories, but the true message is lost in a welter of gossip and ‘victims’. Don’t let research, development, science and the thousands of miles that representatives travelled in order to change lives, get in the way of a good story! The truth is that Meldonium was not created to win Wimbledon, but it has altered the course
of history for thousands of patients.
Beyond the tabloid headlines, UK pharma is in a period of revolution, while re-establishing itself as one of the most pioneering industries on the planet. In spite of the scientific and technological breakthroughs, however, it is unlikely that any young people are kept awake at night by the prospect of a career in pharma, let alone dreaming of transforming millions of lives in the process.
For a complex set of reasons – not least the draconian restrictions imposed on pharma by governing bodies – we have been conditioned not to ask ‘how and why Aunt Edna has been able to live until 126’. Indeed, I doubt that one per cent of all university leavers even know that a job in the commercial side of pharmaceutical products evens exists.
People are still more likely to ‘land’ in pharma, due to an unusual set of circumstances – like glancing at a job ad in someone else’s newspaper, on the train – or simply ‘by accident’. In my experience, hardly anyone works at a pharma company by design. Given that the modus operandi for industry is – in essence – to keep people alive, that’s quite weird.
If people don’t really know what pharma is, it’s a bit like not knowing what a computer does, or never having heard of space travel. Although pharma has much to do when it comes to public image, for the people entering industry – by hook or by crook – or those already ensconced in it, a glorious new chapter is being embarked upon; days are there to be seized, as the ‘sales template’ is dumped into non-recyclable waste, and the prospect of a role, in which individuality can thrive, emerges.
Digital is taking off – a little later than expected – and the production line of identikit representatives has been shut down for good. In the brave new pharma universe, most representatives are tech-savvy, disease-aware product gurus, with a penchant for engaging communication. It is no longer possible to rock up to a doctor’s surgery and rely on auto-pilot. Modern medicine is accelerating at such speed that presentations can undergo fundamental changes, and compelling additions, at a moment’s notice.
Someone turning into a hospital carpark, in Ipswich or Hull or Basingstoke, may suddenly be confronted with real world data, on their iPad, which has materialised from an extensive trial in Cape Town, New York or Beijing. Someone in Milton Keynes may be pacing towards a commissioner’s office when they suddenly receive word that a cancer drug has been approved. These factors will need to be candidly incorporated into the discussion and can – quite literally – mean the difference between life and death.
Star Medical’s Polly Appleby is probably better qualified than anyone to observe the significant movement in the force, and how pharma has become a different solar system to the one she first entered, over a quarter of a century ago.
“Our customers’ environments have changed,” she told Pf Magazine. “They’re taking on additional responsibilities, beyond patient care. This has led the industry to shift its focus, from volume, to account management. Using sophisticated targeting, it is now essential to put the best people in the right places.”
“It’s also much harder to see customers,” she added “So hiring resourceful, determined and persistent people, who can deliver value, that’s tailored to each customer’s unique circumstances, is critical. Sales people are working larger territories, and using their initiative, to deliver more, with less. There’s a greater sense of accountability.”
Polly also thinks that the future will yield more change. “Our focus on the environment will drive more demand for outsourced and syndicated teams. As a Regional Business Manager with the Star Medical Syndicated Team, I’ve helped them build a talented, positive and agile resource – informed by sophisticated technology – which can flex, in order to optimise the strongest environments.”
So, as we begin to begin to fully comprehend the possibilities of a neo-pharma odyssey – in which very different individuals roam – flexible pharma freestylers are already offering bespoke packages, encouraging commissioners to confidently open their doors. With the possible exception of Maria Sharapova’s ‘family doctor’, that is.