There is going to be a time in the not too distant future, when the fuller picture of the healthcare impacts of COVID-19 come into sharper focus. When that happens, it is not likely to be pretty. In large part, this is because a very large portion of the population has moved into a state of unemployment. With that reality come a labyrinth of consequences that alter the healthcare landscape on a seismic scale, particularly in the United States where access to healthcare relies largely on being employed. For the pharmaceutical, biotech and device industries, this impacts everything from from philanthropy, to sales force mindset and approach, to the development of strategic partnerships. There are going to have to be changes. And moreover, there are likely to be new expectations.
Here are just a few realities:
- We will be sicker. First of all, people have put off care across therapeutic categories, in many cases likely exacerbating their existing conditions. In addition, illness that may have been prevented through early detection and treatment will not have been. Icing on this particular cake is that everyone is stressed resulting in substantial acute mental health needs – and we don’t really have a good mental health system of care in this country. In fact, we don’t even have a system.
- We will be poorer. Just when we need access to the healthcare system more urgently, more broadly, and with more needs, as a result of unemployment we will have less ability to do so. Insurance that was employer dependent will have evaporated for many, savings will be consumed and with a resulting increase in indigence (which means food and nutrition insecurity), there will likely be a huge and unprecedented migration onto Medicaid.
- We will have fewer options. Healthcare practitioners have taken it on the jaw and a number of practices as well as institutions, such as rural hospitals, may be in shorter supply. In addition, healthcare workers have been on the front lines and many have been stricken and died. And there will be those who will not want to continue in their profession given this experience and the new demands placed on them in a post-COVID world. Some will just understandably burn out. That means that even for those lucky enough to retain their insurance, the options at hand for accessing medical care may be far less than they were before.
- We will be more on our own. Non-profit patient support organizations provide a great deal of support for all types of patients. During the early days of the AIDS epidemic these organizations filled the many holes that were in the system of care providing everything from counseling to food support to dentistry to name a few in a long list. There exist a multitude of patient organizations providing support and advocacy for their constituent groups. They are all charitable entities that rely on donations. With so many fewer people employed, donations will be much more competitive and in much less supply. They are going to need help to survive.
Naturally it is not up to the pharmaceutical, biotech and device sector to solve all of these problems, but there may be a very real expectation that they are huge part of the solution in areas where they have the ability to make the greatest impact.
In September 2019, a Gallup poll was released that showed that the pharmaceutical industry had hit rock bottom when compared to other sectors, with a positive rating of just 27 percent of the population and a negative rating of 58 percent. Now, as we universally experience a pandemic that has threatened our health and our wealth, attitudes may be shifting. Some have speculated that this crisis presents industry with an opportunity to change public perception. This was evidenced in a analysis conducted by my colleagues at True Global Intelligence, the in-house research practice of FleishmanHillard. In a survey of over 6500 people conducted globally in six markets, people were asked how important various entities were in responding to the pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies had the second highest ranking (93 percent of respondents), just behind the role of national government, ahead of local government, employers and well ahead of other major corporations.
In other words, there is a great expectation of industry. Fulfilling it may mean adopting new approaches to supporting health care professionals as they grapple with the pent up medical demand for non-COVID conditions. It will likely require a more holistic relationship between providers and companies through their sales force; the development of new and expanded patient assistance programs to address the needs of the newly indigent and those lacking insurance; providing beefed up support for patient organizations seeing to the ancillary needs of their constituents, and more. It requires proactive planning now, not reactive patchwork later.
There are going to be a lot of pieces to pick up and put back together. From adversity there is always present opportunity. This is not just a medical crisis, it is a humanitarian one. And unlike the AIDS pandemic that was horrific but narrow in scope, this one touches every single person in critical ways. That means an approach in a post-pandemic world must also be humanitarian and must be comprehensive. People expect the pharmaceutical, biotech and device industries to step up and bring this pandemic to its knees with treatments, vaccines and tests (antibody and viral presence), but the expectation is not likely to stop there. When everything else is somewhat broken, the industry will likely still be standing tall. The future perception of the industry may hinge more on its presence in the aftermath of COVID-19 in helping shape a new and better environment than it will be by innovation expressed during the pandemic that eventually may bring an end to it.