Staff Writer
Aug 31, 2021

Pharma in focus: how the health sector can maintain its glow post-pandemic

At a roundtable hosted by Campaign and WE Communications, communications and marketing leaders from the healthcare industry discussed how they are responding to unprecedented levels of public scrutiny and why establishing trust among patients and stakeholders has never been more critical.

Pharma in focus: how the health sector can maintain its glow post-pandemic

Pre-COVID-19, the public viewed the healthcare industry with a sense of apathy. A WE Communications whitepaper entitled “The New Healthcare Brand Imperative: Be Different in the Face of Indifference”,  released in 2020 before the pandemic began, found consumers and B2B professionals perceived the healthcare industry with scepticism and as faceless, nameless and soulless. Some 61% of respondents surveyed would go as far as shaming a prescription health brand if it stepped out of line. 

Fast forward to today, vaccines, diagnostic tests and clinical trials are now everybody’s business. Pharmaceutical companies have become household names overnight, and healthcare communicators and marketers are communicating with new audiences.

At a roundtable organised by Campaign in partnership with WE Communications, senior healthcare communicators and marketing leaders from across Asia Pacific explored how they hope to harness interest in the sector to drive long-term engagement and how they are handling the onslaught of misinformation.

Overcoming the ‘infodemic’

The pandemic has increased the public’s understanding of the healthcare industry, and an overload of information about it. With an appetite for credible information, the health industry has an opportunity to increase its credibility as a reliable source. But this has not been without its challenges. 

Complicated by the scepticism and distrust in the industry, people question the motives behind why pharma companies are sharing certain information, particularly if they have a commercial interest in the issue. Ameet Suratkar, AbbVie’s India head of marketing, eyecare, said, “one of the major challenges for us has been overcoming the public’s perception that any information we communicate has an inherent bias. People question, ‘is this information neutral?’” 

Adding to this is the rise in misinformation and politicising of information, which Bella Ling-Nair, senior director of communications for APAC & Greater China at Baxter International, said, “[The politicising of information] has become challenging for communicators to stay neutral and stay scientific.” 

Many also highlighted the strict regulations stating what healthcare companies can and cannot communicate and how they slowed their response to misinformation. However, rules and policies did not change as quickly as new information and evidence were released in some cases. 

Michel Mommejat, CMO of Genesis Healthcare, voiced the need for a close partnership with social and tech platforms, “A lot of those platforms have been in the spotlight because of misinformation being spread across them,” said Mommejat. “It’s critical for the healthcare industry to build relationships with those stakeholders. On social media, you’re one click away from one version of the story, and its exact opposite.”

Through all of this, an opportunity for the industry is to remain focused on transparency. 

Alec Van-Gelder, head of international corporate affairs at AstraZeneca, pointed out that the transparent story isn’t always rosy: “At AstraZeneca, we follow the science, and you can’t predict what science and data will tell you. But being transparent about science is an important part of engendering trust.”

Promoting health literacy

Despite the challenges, companies and communicators have risen to the occasion. One area that participants agreed is a crucial focus is increasing health literacy.  

Stephanie Yu, MSD’s global communications lead for Asia Pacific, said the industry has a “bigger responsibility than ever” to drive health literacy in society. 

“The public has more understanding of the pharmaceutical industry, [they] know the importance of sciences and medical innovation. I think it’s also important for them to understand how medicines and vaccines are manufactured, how clinical trials work, so there will be less misunderstanding, speculation and rumours, that could destroy public confidence. In short, we now take on a bigger responsibility to…[take on] that facilitating role to make sure that we remain educational.”

Gemma Hudson, executive vice president for health innovation & growth, APAC at WE Communications, added, “Interestingly, the democratisation of information sharing means anyone can be an armchair epidemiologist, sharing health advice at the click of a button. With this huge deluge of information, health literacy takes on a new meaning. It’s no longer just about understanding. It’s about educating the public to be able to navigate and wade through the barrage of content on their social media channels and enable them to determine what is accurate and what is not.” 

Further to this, where health communicators can play a pivotal role, according to Wendy Chung, director of external communications, growth & emerging markets at Takeda, is by sharing the science in an easy to understand and relevant way to the average person and media. 

“Communicators [need] to be able to understand what the science means, and to translate that language into something understandable by the general public,” she said. “When we share information, they don’t think it’s coming from a for-profit perspective but rather for the public good. But first of all, we need to better equip ourselves with the understanding.” 

Recognising the opportunity for the sector, Punitha Aranha, director of communications, innovation medicines, APMEA of Novartis, also pointed out the importance of partnership with other institutions. 

“Improving healthcare is a societal priority, as is a greater awareness of healthcare. Business has an opportunity to fill this void, but it needs to be done through facts and science. It’s not something that businesses can do on its own. Whereas previously there may have been distrust between the private and public sectors, the pandemic has really encouraged collaboration.”  

Supporting employees

One stakeholder group that remains a key focus for communicators is their employees. As a result, many companies have enhanced their internal and employee communications over the past year, especially as employees can be a brand’s strongest advocates. 

In an essential business during a pandemic, showing appreciation for employees, especially frontline workers, cannot be understated. As Ling-Nair said, “if it weren’t for them, Baxter wouldn’t have been able to deliver on our mission. We wouldn’t have been able to save and sustain our patients’ lives.” 

Participants shared how they are experimenting with different content and distribution methods to reach employees, emphasising digital channels. For instance, Aranha shared how Novartis uses social media platforms like Instagram and LinkedIn to connect with staff. “If we post something from the global head on our intranet, and then post a similar piece on her LinkedIn, we often have more employees reading it on LinkedIn.” 

Crystella Lim, head of corporate branding and communication for Menarini Asia Pacific, shared how Menarini utilised social media campaigns to stand in solidarity with the healthcare workers during the start of the pandemic and a partner series for showcasing the human side of its organisation. “It’s a morale booster for staff to hear what partners are saying about them in their work,” said Lim. “When we post these on LinkedIn, our partners will come to us and say there has been a real connection; better than a virtual meeting.”

Moving forward: be bold

The unprecedented global health crisis has increased the general public’s interest and understanding of the health sector and what it takes to bring new medicine to market. As a result, the industry’s reputation has never been stronger and continues to be viewed as one of the most innovative sectors today. Now the question becomes: what does a post-pandemic future hold for the sector? How can the industry maintain trust and credibility moving forward? 

Hudson believes the industry is heading in the right direction and urges it not to become complacent. “Historically, the industry has been risk-averse and often quiet achievers, not promoting their work and purpose. We now have an opportunity to build on our momentum by leaning in, being proactive in telling our story,” she said. “This is our time to shine and help the public navigate the infodemic era.” 

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