By Karen Taylor, Director, and Maria João Cruz, PhD, Assistant Research Manager, Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions
Trust is critical for the biopharma industry, from influencing their chances of gaining and maintaining customers to their ability to recruit talent. Consumer’s trust in biopharma also gives the industry the incentive to innovate to provide life-saving therapies. Yet, biopharma still ranks as one of the least trusted industries, even though consumer polls show that the COVID-19 pandemic has helped improved trust. In January 2021, Deloitte’s US and UK Centres for Health Solutions conducted consumer research, using digital focus group discussions in four countries (the US, UK, India and South Africa) seeking to answer crucial questions around consumer trust in pharma. This week marks the launch of our research report, Overcoming biopharma’s trust deficit: Why people mistrust the biopharma industry – and what to do about it, and this blog highlights our take on the report and what companies can do to build and maintain trust.
Understanding trust and why it matters
Trust is ‘a willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of others because we believe they have good intentions and will behave well toward us’. Companies and their leaders can build and maintain trust by acting with competence (ability to follow through on what you say you will do) and intent (taking decisive action from a place of genuine empathy and true care for the wants and needs of stakeholders).
In general, trust drives customer loyalty. For biopharma, reputational integrity is critical to ensure that stakeholders across the health ecosystem recognise and appreciate the value the industry brings to society including biopharma’s role in improving life expectancy and health outcomes.
However, this recognition can be hard-won, since healthcare is viewed as a necessity, not a luxury, and can raise questions around biopharma’s business motives. Strong reputational value could also mean a stronger working relationship with regulators and policymakers, with a shared understanding of goals as well as stronger public support. Importantly, trust also helps attract and retain high-quality talent, which, in turn, boosts their innovative capabilities to bring new life-saving and/or life-extending therapies to patients.
Understanding trust within the healthcare system
Today, healthcare consumers are more educated than ever before, largely due to the availability of online information. Patients ask questions about medicines prescribed to them and are aware of the manufacturers of those medicines (51 per cent of focus group participants who said they take a medicine know who makes it). Consumers are using health information websites for health-related information and are sharing their experiences with products and service providers via social media and other patient channels.
Seventy-two per cent of participants in our focus groups identified doctors’ offices and physician groups as their most trusted sources of information. Participants ranked medical associations and government health agencies in second and third places, respectively but ranked biopharma near the bottom of the list of eight possibilities in all countries, except India (figure 1).
Figure 1. Doctors’ offices and physician groups are the most trusted sources of information for health conditions and treatments
We found the strongest sentiment of trust in biopharma was in India (89 per cent), and in the UK and South Africa it was 62 and 65 per cent, respectively. In the United States, 50 per cent of participants said they do not trust biopharma companies. We asked participants to explain why they trust (or not) biopharma companies. Those who do trust biopharma used words such as ‘specialised’, ‘invested’, and ‘responsible’ to describe how they felt. However, around 20 per cent of participants in all four countries reported mistrust towards biopharma companies and used terms such as ‘profit-making’, ‘harmful’, and ‘get you dependent on a product’, citing high prices for medicines and lack of transparency about how drugs are developed as their top reasons.
We also interviewed public relations professionals from the biopharma industry who suggested that biopharma is at a disadvantage when compared to healthcare providers as they are not typically directly involved with patient care and are, therefore more distant from the patient experience. They also mentioned that biopharma has historically not been able to articulate the length and cost of R&D which in turn affects drug prices.
We asked participants how biopharma companies could gain trust, and generally they told us they’d like to see easily understandable information on drug effectiveness and side effects (66 per cent), how drugs are developed (51 per cent), and more transparency on pricing (51 per cent). In addition, participants mentioned they were interested in more information on business practices (36 per cent).
COVID-19 and trust in pharma
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided biopharma with a unique opportunity to reconnect with consumers globally and rebuild trust by showcasing its innovative capabilities and value to society. Most people are hoping that the biopharma industry can help pave the way back to normalcy especially as the industry has developed vaccines and therapies that are effective at preventing and treating COVID-19, in less than 12 months. While consumer polls have shown general improvements in sentiment towards biopharma, our focus groups showed that, with the exception of India (70 per cent reported their trust in pharma had increased), relatively few reported that their feelings towards biopharma had improved (26 per cent in the United States, 45 per cent in the United Kingdom, and 26 per cent in South Africa).
Consumers are looking for biopharma companies to publicise the side effects of vaccines and provide transparency around their clinical development and manufacturing processes. Participants said that having more publicly available information about safety and efficacy (63 per cent) as well as assurance from their personal doctor (55 per cent) could increase their trust in vaccines. Most of our survey participants in the UK and India said they plan to get vaccinated once vaccines are approved for use by their countries’ governments and are available to them, however, participants in the US and South Africa remined more sceptical (figure 2). The more hesitant reported that they are worried about the lack of information around immediate side effects and that the vaccines have not been tested long enough to understand long-term effects.
Figure 2. Most respondents reported they are likely to get vaccinated once it is available to them
Overcoming biopharma’s trust deficit
Improving trust can improve consumers’ health if they trust that the medications will help with their conditions. Building trust is, therefore, crucial to demonstrating the true value that biopharma companies and the rest of the healthcare system bring to society, while being accountable to all stakeholders.
Deloitte research indicates that the signals that will help improve consumer trust include signals on: humanity, transparency, capability and reliability. Moreover, developing a strategy that conveys both competence and intent should start at the top of the organisation. Specifically, companies can grow and manage trust by demonstrating competence in their abilities to deliver safe and efficacious vaccines (and therapies) and their intent to help patients in all circumstances.
Ultimately, companies can also capitalise on the increased interest in the clinical trial process to connect more closely and improve engagement with consumers through clear scientific evidence and transparency.