David wants understanding between NHS & industry

Not who you say I am:

Pharma companies need to be clear who they’re talking to and why they’re talking to them.

Last week a pharma account manager came to see me on a field visit, accompanied by their national boss. My unsolicited replies weren’t, apparently, as predicted, with the boss concluding that my replies were, “not what we normally expect from payers”.

Now, I joined pharma 25 years ago in a team directed at these so-called ‘payers’, worked for a further two other companies and then for over a hundred as a consultant. My senior NHS roles covered hospitals, commissioning bodies and GP networks – and yet, I still don’t know what a payer is!

We seem to use the term ‘payer’ for anyone influencing decisions around medicines who is not a clinician. We then make odd assumptions about them regarding logic, emotion and persona, as well as their level of scientific understanding.

These encounters remind me of the well-intentioned but cringy interaction that adults around me used to have when the first Asian family moved into our street in the 1960s. The kids had no problem forming bonds, but the adults were so busy climbing over misconceptions they couldn’t build a rapport until they were eventually led by their children’s instinctive friendships.

The importance of understanding and appreciating still resonates across industry and the NHS today.

Knowing me, knowing you

The most impactful pharma training sessions I have seen in recent years have been those where NHS managers go through their role and practical challenges in a simple ‘day in the life way’. Just talking through a typical month’s diary is a positive revelation. You see the human behind the title and empathise with the challenges involved.

In my experience, when NHS managers encounter pharma in the right way, they become intrigued and impressed. They see much in pharma to admire as competency frameworks, coaching, personal development, corporate values and use of technology tend to be far better developed in that world.

They also learn about medicines and their positive value away from the typical cost commodity context of NHS budgets. Most NHS managers lack qualifications and training around clinical and scientific issues.

They are not trained in reading clinical papers or evaluating evidence and tend to exaggerate the cost of individual medicines. They do not realise the role of pharma in transforming our lives through, for example, immunisation, the closure of huge psychiatric hospitals, and safe contraception.

What can you do about this? I see great examples from companies inviting NHS managers to head office, cycle meetings and symposia. I also see ‘buddy’ schemes, mentorships and exchanges. Bodies such as the NHS Confederation, National Association for Primary Care, and Healthcare Financial Management Association will engage and broker these relationships.

In the past I have seen highly successful ‘medicine for managers’ sessions and excellent health economics training. All it needs is a little bit of guided curiosity and someone to make the first move. Well, it may as well be you.

David Thorne is Chair, Washington Community Healthcare and Non-Executive Director, City and Vale GP Alliance. Go to blueriverconsulting.co.uk