COVID: A New Wave of Interest in Pharma, what learnings can we take into the future

By Danny Burney, Field Medical Lead, Bristol Myers Squibb UK and Ireland

Article first published on the Pharmafield website 16th July 2021

My Mum, Mary, aged 73, is a retired hairdresser, and this past year she’s discovered a new passion. Medical science. COVID-19 hasn’t left the headlines for over 12 months now; the health risks, coupled with the incredible scientific work that has seen an unprecedented global vaccine operation, has put the pharmaceutical industry or ‘pharma’ in a spotlight that it probably isn’t used to.

Throughout my pharmaceutical career – and I’ve been lucky enough to work at Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) for 17 years – she’s always been interested in what I do, but never as engaged as she currently is. Now when we have a catch-up, she’s chatting away about reduction rates and probability values. She’s learned about hazard ratios and is consumed by the manufacturing process, reliability of supply, medicine regulation, medicine class differentiators…this list is endless. Like my mother, there are millions of people around the country whose understanding of what we do in ‘pharma’ has been transformed by our collective experience of COVID-19.

Storytelling is key to sharing our science

While the communication around the pandemic hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing, the industry has learned how to better communicate with a wider public about the complexities of the work it does.

We have a responsibility to build on this extraordinary period of self-education and find ways of talking about what we do – beyond vaccines. Showing and telling with real life examples of the impact our research and development has on patients will inspire sectors of society who want to know more about what we do. We have to find stories that continue to engage people, and build understanding of how we’re transforming patients’ lives through science.

A main in a wheelchair drinking coffee at the table

We’re used to communicating with other scientists and healthcare professionals (HCPs), government bodies and patient groups, corporate stakeholders and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – people who already have at least some understanding or direct experience of what the pharmaceutical industry does, how we operate and the benefits we bring. Now, we need to innovate the way we discuss and show our science to a new audience – the general public – who don’t have that grounding and understanding of how our processes work and how we make treatments available.

We need to look for different and more inclusive ways of telling our stories. Everyone working in our sector, needs to be accountable to share our science - in plain English - at every opportunity. Which means pharma needs to learn a new language and create the kind of impactful and realistic storytelling that we’ve seen from people like England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, otherwise affectionately known as JVT. For a veteran of the pharma industry, he has a brilliant way with words, especially analogies. “Not winning the cup yet, but you know that the goalkeeper can be beaten” was one, or there was, “being able to see the train coming into the station, and has slowed down safely, it has stopped, doors have opened, which is the authorisation by the MHRA”.

Sharing our stories

For a start, we need to be passionate in what we believe and what we say, and we need to show inclusion and diversity of thought in how we develop our story and tell the people that matter, whilst demonstrating the integrity of the knowledge we hold. We should think: if my Mum were to read or hear this, what would she think and what emotion and interest would she show? We also need to create a rich storytelling culture within the companies we work for.

I’m fortunate in that respect because BMS places learning, innovation and inclusivity high on its agenda. For example, we work with schools, universities and the Nuffield Foundation to support scientific education, and to provide opportunities for young people to experience our approach to science. For us, our values are not simply connected to the way we approach our work but also in how we engage with society. If we are to matter to them, we have to find new ways to communicate and engage with each other. We must never forget that there’s a patient at the end of every decision we take and that means helping them understand why we do what we do and how we achieve results. Everyone I work with is passionate about science and medicine, and it’s a thrill to see that same passion reflected across society.

If something good is to come from this pandemic, let it be in how we speak to 73-year-old retired hairdressers.

March 2022