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Darwin's Medicine blog

Professor Brian D Smith is an authority on the pharmaceutical industry and works at SDA Bocconi University and Hertfordshire Business School.

We've got this!

Our industry has evolved before and we will again

Recently, I ran a webinar about strategy in the life sciences after COVID-19. It attracted a lot of interest and gave me the opportunity to sense our industry’s collective mood at this exceptional time. I can’t say it was optimistic. Outside those areas that directly benefit from the pandemic, my audience were sombre, reflective and worried. Their concerns are not groundless and I share many of them. But I am in general more positive about our industry’s long-term future. As usual, my reasoning is based on Darwin’s brilliant idea and, if you will follow my argument for few minutes, I hope you will share my sunny outlook.

Out with the old

The trepidation caused by COVID-19 stems from the fact that our world has changed forever. Any list of COVID-19’s implications would miss something important but the concerns expressed to me included the impact of social distancing on sales and marketing activity, the shift of healthcare spending priorities and the ability of society to fund innovative treatments. If those threats, and the many others we could think of, don’t give life sciences executives cause for solemn reflection, what would? We are naturally unsettled by the idea that many of the things we’re used to doing, and have become good at, will no longer work in the same way in the future. Whether that’s detailing to prescribers, attending huge international congresses or focusing on high-value niches, we know our old habits will need to change. And our instinctive nervousness about change is amplified when what those changes will be is shrouded in uncertainty. We like to say ‘out with the old, in with the new’ in a cheerful tone but the words ‘change’ and ‘comfortable’ rarely occupy the same sentence with much authenticity.

Our history is our future

What makes me resistant to these legitimate fears? Well, although most of my work is looking at the current and future evolution of our industry, my research is also shaped by reading its history. And that history is one of frequent adaptation in the face of changes that made our embedded, comfortable habits no longer a good fit with our market environment. The global, science-based corporations we know today evolved from apothecaries, tiny local businesses who added value by grinding willow bark and other natural remedies. It was the second industrial revolution of the later 19th century that made the apothecary model obsolete. It must have felt very uncomfortable for those who were making a good living from willow bark to read about germ theory or to witness the revolution of organic synthesis in chemistry. The same discomfort must have faced our grandparents in the therapeutic revolution of the decades after WWII. As if the miracle of antibiotics wasn’t enough, imagine living through a period when receptor theory displaced our old paradigms and ʹ-blockers and ACEinhibitors emerged from the labs. We might now look back on those times as a golden age but imagine being in the meeting when it became obvious that your old ideas and ways of doing things had gone out of the window. In fact, our industry’s entire history has been one of the world thrusting change upon us. When I began my career as a ‘lab rat’ in the late 1970s, my older colleagues regaled me with stories of the industry before the thalidomide disaster and how the subsequent change in regulation seemed to them to make innovation impossible. More recently, we have witnessed the transformational impact of genomics, new materials in medical devices, robotics and information technology in medical technologies and immunotherapies in oncology. And the changes haven’t only been scientific. Look at globalisation, market access, lifestyle diseases and other sociological transformations. These were all changes that fundamentally changed the market environment to which the industry was well adapted and that demanded major changes in how we do things.

We’re still standing

But here’s the thing: I could fill several books with changes in the social and technological environment of the life sciences industry over the last century or so. Those changes varied greatly in their causes, speed and implications but they had one thing in common: they all made the embedded, comfortable way we did things obsolete. They made it necessary to evolve.

And we did evolve. We now work in an industry that, in terms of societal impact, is more important and successful than it has ever been. All of those changes, from sulphonamides to CAR-T and from regulation to health economics, hit the industry, made us feel uncomfortable and made evolution non-negotiable. But our industry rose to that challenge. We didn’t just survive, we thrived. That’s why, without understating the importance of COVID-19’s implications, I look forward to the future of our industry. COVID-19? It’s OK. We’ve got this.

Article by
Professor Brian D Smith

26th June 2020

From: Healthcare


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