Stephen Whitehead outlines the ABPI’s latest initiatives to facilitate collaboration – and how sales professionals have a key part to play .
This year the ABPI is launching a Regional Partnership team to help the industry establish and develop sustainable relationships with the NHS at a regional level. The team, deploying experienced industry professionals in each of the four regional SHA clusters, aims to promote and facilitate collaborative working as a means to improve patient outcomes. Its key objectives are to identify and remove existing barriers to accessing innovative medicines, to help develop regional partnership projects and to share best practice across the country. The initiative reflects the growing recognition that improving patient health in a constrained financial environment will be best achieved by adopting a more collaborative approach. And there is an increasing consensus across both parties that, after years of developing adversarial relationships, the direction of travel towards NHS/industry partnerships is the right one for patient care.
But progress is an incremental process. The perceived cultural barriers that have historically plagued the relationship and impacted access will not be overcome overnight. “Trust and reputation has widely been acknowledged as an issue for industry – but it’s getting better,” says Stephen Whitehead, CEO at the ABPI. “In fact, it has dramatically improved. You can 12 see that from the Innovation, Health & Wealth (IHW) review: the NHS really wants to partner with pharma. In turn, as an industry we know that we are operating within restricted NHS budgets, and that we need to make it clear that we are not always there to sell something. Joint working is not about developing something that can help companies achieve a sales target on a quarterly basis, it’s about establishing a new way of working that will redefine the relationship between us and the customer. That will take time.”
In an evolutionary process, the ABPI appears determined to take the lead – to trail-blaze the concept of partnership working from a top-line strategic position and help ease the concerns of more anxious NHS customers. “The driving platform for joint working from the side of the industry should be the ABPI,” says Stephen. “We established the joint working protocol with the DH, and have developed the code of practice and regulatory infrastructure to enable it to happen. We’ve therefore created the headroom to allow partnerships to be established. Most parts of the NHS have understood and grasped this. It’s now up to us to lead, and for companies to take the opportunities within that.”
With access to NHS customers a perennial problem for UK pharma, the battle to develop the joint working agenda is a challenging one for individual companies. Medical sales professionals are tasked with advancing discussions, but attempts are often stymied due to diminishing levels of customer access. The ABPI believes its NHS Partnerships initiative will play a major part in raising awareness of partnership working, and overcoming access issues on an industry-wide basis. “NHS Partnerships will help industry
engage with key NHS stakeholders in England and ensure partnership conversations happen at a regional level. It’s not about individual products – we will not be talking about those – but we will be a facilitator of dialogue around joint working, aligned with the partnership principles set out by David Nicholson. We will be looking closely at the national issues on uptake and access, and any policy that emerges around that – and reinforcing it locally. Critically, NHS Partnerships isn’t the creation of ‘talking shops’, it’s about being able to facilitate on the key issues – which are fundamentally about access and uptake of innovation.”
NHS Partnerships has already been welcomed by the Department of Health, whose Director of Innovation & Service Improvement, Miles Ayling, said: “The ABPI partnership team will help build stronger links between industry and the NHS, as described in IHW. Beyond medicines, we are also looking at how all concerned can share skills, expertise and knowledge to improve the health of UK patients and help transform lives.”
The long-standing issue of industry mistrust does, at long last, seem to be fading within the NHS. This was reflected in the ABPI’s seat at the top table of discussions around IHW last year, and has been reinforced by Stephen Whitehead’s involvement on the IHW Implementation Board. In addition to the partnerships initiative, the ABPI (along with ABHI) has also established a series of pilot projects with the NHS Confederation to look at how joint working can make a difference in selected disease areas. Pilots are already underway in mental health, circulatory diseases, diabetes and long-term conditions. “This is about providing examples of best practice within the NHS so customers can understand what we mean and establish that there is nothing for them to be worried about,” says Stephen.
“We have a strong status, but we’ve not yet fully utilised it in the context of joint working capability. That’s what these initiatives have been set up to do. This is a whole new world and a very exciting one – ten years ago we could never have had these relationships. But now that we are here, we need to approach customers gently and appropriately, and work with the NHS collaboratively and co-operatively to ensure that we dispel any of those old misunderstandings.”
And so, in the new environment, what role will sales professionals and Key Account Management play in NHS engagement? “The role of sales is evolving quite rapidly,” says Stephen. “Sales engagement is increasingly about liaison, as well as detailing around a product. It’s about facilitating collaborative working – and the salesforce has a key role to play in this.”