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Interview: Stephen Whitehead, ABPI

The CEO of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry tells Tom Meek he is passionate about putting reputation and partnership at the heart of the UK industry
Stephen-Whitehead

Two things stand out when speaking to Stephen Whitehead, who is Richard Barker's replacement as CEO of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI): the need to build the industry's reputation in the UK and the realisation that the industry cannot do it alone.

Such considered priorities should come as no surprise from a man who has spent his entire career working on the communications side within industries that have had more than their fair share of controversy, including his time as group communications director of international financial services company Prudential during the height of the recent economic crisis (a "pretty unique period of time," according to Whitehead).

Now back in the pharmaceutical sector since June 2011, following an eight-year break, Whitehead faces the challenge of promoting the positive side of a sector that has often been maligned in the mainstream press for its profit motives and controversial drug withdrawals, as well as ensuring that pharma can work with the National Health Service (NHS), the Department of Health and, most importantly of all, patients.

Referencing his work in the beverage sector, which included helping with the Drink Aware campaign to provide alcohol advice, Whitehead says: "Fundamentally, to me, reputation is not difficult. It's about two things: what you do and what you say about what you do. You can't say it if you don't do it.

"If you are committed to transparency, then you have to do something about it. If you are committed to partnership with the NHS, then you have to do something to demonstrate that. Otherwise it's just window dressing."

Greater 'transparency' is a key part of building the trust needed for a good reputation, according to Whitehead, with more shared decision making and involvement of all stakeholders, as well as clinical trials, part of his plans.

Dealing with misconceptions held about pharmaceutical companies is also an important test for Whitehead.

He says: "Reputation is determined fundamentally by two things – one is myth and one is reality. A lot of the myths we're living with, maybe we deserved 30 years ago, but we don't deserve now."

Explaining that the media prefers the more contentious story of a clinical trial cover-up, or the easier to emote notion of a treatment either being a killer medicine or a wonder drug, Whitehead stresses the need for balance.

"Most of life sits in the grey area," he says. "Sometimes a medicine is wonderful for someone but not for someone else. And that's a little too complex often for publishing in the tabloid press. So you end up in a situation where, all the time, you're fighting against these misconceptions and myths. And unless you fight against them fastidiously and continuously, then you won't make a difference."

Biography

Stephen Whitehead was appointed Chief Executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) in June 2011. He is the chief advocate for the research-based industry in the UK, sits on the ABPI board of management and is responsible for all aspects of the ABPI's work.

In his last role, Stephen was group communications director at Prudential, a role he held for four years. Prior to that he was corporate affairs director at Barclays, after coming from Allied Domecq, where he was group director of corporate affairs.

His first communications role in the pharmaceutical industry began with his appointment as head of communications at GlaxoWellcome UK, where he integrated the global corporate identity of Wellcome following the company's merger.

This was followed by a term at Diageo, where he was group alcohol policy director and also sat on the board of The Portman Group.

Stephen was also director of corporate affairs for Eli Lilly's European operation which involved management of all aspects of external communication, from strategy formulation to policy development.

He was awarded 'Communiquétor of the year' at PMGroup's Communiqué awards in 2000.

Stephen was educated at Ilkley Grammar School in West Yorkshire, and then at the University of Manchester, where he read American Studies.

With such a task ahead of him, Whitehead might have had good reason not to return to the industry he was last involved in as director corporate affairs, European operations, at Eli Lilly and Company in 2003.

However, it was clearly an opportunity he cared too much about to miss: "The one sector that always stimulated me the most and one that I always felt passionately about was pharmaceuticals. Because whatever anyone else may say about the industry, whenever you wake up in the morning or go to bed at night, you feel like you're going to do something that matters today because it is fundamentally about human health."

As for what has changed for the pharma industry during that time, Whitehead notes the evolving methods of R&D, to include the greater influence of smaller pharmaceutical companies.

"We're not big pharma," he says. "We're an incredibly complex ecosystem, starting from the smallest companies right up to the largest. And the capital flows from beginning to end.

"The old model of R&D – 'let's do it in-house' – that has changed. What we've got is greater externalisation. And that's not a bad thing. The government recognises the role of the pharma industry in creating and stimulating this growth."

Whitehead has been vocal about the need for continued support for innovation from the government, claiming that the UK lagged behind the rest of Europe in terms of access to new treatments in his first public talk as the organisation's CEO. And following the publication of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' 'International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2011' report, he made a public call for greater investment and for risk in research to be rewarded.

"The UK government is fighting a global competitive battle here," he affirms. "They have got to make the UK the most attractive place for this industry and right at the beginning of the discovery chain as well.

"The industry works – it provides solutions, it produces cures, it produces treatments. What we haven't done is assiduously defended the profit model. I'm not a Gordon Gekko [from the film Wall Street] – I don't go 'greed is good' – but I think profit does provide the incentive for discovery and we have to be prepared to defend that."

Citing the UK's fall in global share of clinical trials from 3 per cent to 1 per cent, Whitehead says effective use must be made of the positives the NHS has as one whole integrated system.

"The NHS provides a single accessible system which we should be able to use effectively for data, for trials, quick recruitment and quick follow through. The Secretary of State has said 'every patient, a research patient' and we support that."

The repetition of clinical trial approval process at various regional levels and the number of patients on gold standard treatments are highlighted by Whitehead as areas to improve to encourage greater uptake of clinical trials.

The relationship between the ABPI and government also has an important role to play in access to medicines in the UK, with a cause of concern for Whitehead being the plans to introduce a value-based pricing (VBP) system to decide the cost of new treatments that sits alongside the next scheme that deals with existing products.

Alluding to the work of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) in working out the values and outcomes of medicines, as well as the profit cap the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS) offers, Whitehead sees many touted aspects of VBP already in place under the current system.

The only real question to answer when contemplating a new system for drug pricing is how to increase uptake of medicines, but the solution is not in VBP, says Whitehead.

"If VBP addressed uptake, I would be very happy, but at the moment I can't see in the model how it does that. I'm also extremely nervous of two pricing systems running together because that would just be incredibly bureaucratic and burdensome, particularly for the ABPI's smaller members that don't have huge in-house resources and would have to manoeuvre their way through both the PPRS and VBP schemes." 

The solution for Whitehead is a single scheme that embraces some of the value-based metrics and looks at the broad societal benefits of pharmaceuticals in its assessment, rather than the difficulty of negotiating two separate systems.

An area where Whitehead has less control over the complexity is in the evolving nature of the industry's customers, but he is confident that this is something that both the ABPI and the industry can adapt to.

Under his leadership, the ABPI intends to develop regional structures, keeping up with government plans to move decision making to a more local level and build more effective partnerships with the NHS.

"We have created a function called NHS partnerships," explains Whitehead, "which looks at partnering and working with the NHS to establish optimum pathways for adoption of innovative medicines that fundamentally support the government's agenda. It makes sure we're positioned in that debate nationally and locally.

"We can be the bridge between the industry and the NHS and we should be. Andrew Lansley [Secretary of State for Health] has this statement – 'no decision about me without me'. If you take that, it has to be local decision making and I want pharma to be part of that process locally."

It is a similar story when discussing the NHS and the best use of medicines: "The only way we can help the NHS is by being a partner. We can't simply sell to them, it has to be a partnership model, because we are selling medicines that are seen as expensive and only by partnering with the NHS and looking at how that medicine is used as part of a pathway of care can they see where the value is."

For Whitehead, reputation is not just something that can be built through what the industry communicates; it has to be earned through what it does.

This means greater transparency and communication, to develop trust and build those essential relationships to benefit healthcare's ultimate stakeholder – the patient.

"I think in 10 years' time, pharma will look quite different to how it looks now," comments Whitehead. "I think you will see a lot better reputation in this industry and my vision is that we will be integrated and in partnership with the NHS, in terms of putting medicines at the centre of pathways of care, which requires a different way of working. It requires us to step away from the old sales mode into a much more 'we're part of the solution, not the problem' model. And that will be managed appropriately through joint working.

"I'm a passionate advocate and believer in this industry. It's an industry that has saved many lives. Many people I know are alive today because of the discoveries we have made."


Tom Meek
The Interviewer
Tom Meek
is web editor at PMGroup

To comment on this article, please use the commenting feature below

15th November 2011

From: Healthcare

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