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The role of pharma in breaking through the backlog

As health systems emerge from the pandemic, and attention turns to the backlog of patients waiting for treatment, how can the pharmaceutical industry position itself as part of the solution? In his latest blog, Hanover Health’s Alexander Davies looks to answer the following questions – big pharma was there for the world when it needed vaccines in record-breaking time, can it find the innovations that we need now to clear through the queue of people waiting for treatment? Can it partner with health systems to speed up access, improve patient outcomes and reduce the burden on healthcare professionals? And, if it did so, what are the opportunities for its reputation?

What should your pharma company talk about for the next twelve months? It’s a question that many communications and public affairs professionals ask at this time of year, and many in agency world try to help them answer. Whilst plans may have been set towards the end of 2021, it’s now when the real work starts and all the things that seemed like Communique-worthy ideas at the time have to be put into practice. So, given the state of the world, the NHS and our industry, what should pharma companies be talking about? I’ve tried to look at the answer to this question from a hundred different perspectives, and I find myself landing on the same answer.

The relatively unique nature of the UK landscape means that, for the large part, the industry has one customer – the NHS. Casual observers might think that the NHS is now emerging from the pandemic, and the worse of the demands on clinicians and services might be a thing of the past. After all, it can’t get worse than peak-Covid, surely? However, speak to those on the frontline of the health service, as we do frequently, and they will tell you a very different story. The sheer size of the backlog of patients, created by Covid, means that far from this crisis being over for the NHS, it has barely just begun. In England alone, six million people are waiting for treatment. To put that into perspective, that is a list six times larger than the population of Birmingham. A report from the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated that even if hospitals could maintain activity levels 5% above pre-pandemic levels it would still take until 2033 to clear the backlog of cancer patients.

What does this mean for pharma, and the story it needs to tell? The reality is that any company who wants its messages to land with a customer who is still in crisis-mode needs to show one thing – how it can help. Stories about innovative science and sexy R&D are all well and good, but they will fall on deaf ears unless they show how they will help the NHS get through the coming months and years. How does your innovation speed-up the patient pathway, reduce the burden of physical appointments or save precious money? And crucially, how will you work hand-in-glove with the system to deliver it? This point, on being a partner to the NHS, is also one that resonates with the public. An ABPI survey of more than 8000 people showed that public appreciated what pharma did during the worst of Covid, and the reputation of the industry has improved as a result. In 2021, seven in ten people believe industry had supported the NHS during Covid. 60 per cent said their views of the industry had improved since the pandemic, up from just 36% from the summer of 2020.

So, as you begin to return to the office to try and solve this question, it is worth remembering that your customer hasn’t returned to normal. Any company who wants to make an impact in 2022 needs to remember this and put messages about helping the NHS beat the backlog, and doing it all in partnership, at the heart of their story. Anything else, just won’t breakthrough.

9th February 2022


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