By Ken Banta and Stephen Morales
Ken Banta is founder and principal of The Vanguard Group for Leadership, which convenes C-Suite discussions around high-performance leadership, and advises top executives on leadership.
Stephen Morales is Senior Vice President at Marwood Group, which advises life science companies and private equity investors on the intersection of strategy and healthcare reimbursement and policy.
One remarkable side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a sea change in attitudes about healthcare. Suddenly, hospitals, insurers, and pharmaceutical companies have become heroes of our communities. Kids are going to start wanting to be biotech researchers when they grow up.
This is welcome news for the industry, which is so often under attack. And the investment in and creation of effective treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 will likely further build public support. But all that will be lost if it seems that companies are not really changing how they operate. Players in the sector must earn trust for the long term.
One area that will certainly come back into focus before too long is pharmaceutical pricing. There may be especially intense scrutiny of pricing around vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, but this will be true across treatment areas.
However, this is potentially a game changing moment. The public is ready to hear about the risks and costs that go into health innovation and commercialization, and biopharma companies have a chance to attract sympathetic attention to both the true costs and the benefits. The real-world examples of developing a COVID-19 treatment or vaccine, or a new generation ventilator, can be proof points for how the industry handles this new environment.
Leadership for making this happen sits squarely with the CEOs of the companies that are innovating to create the post-COVID world. Their most important role ahead will be to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle of the sector’s improved approval ratings, and to turn it into a sustainable energy source for capital and talent. The way to do so will be through transparency and bold, human diplomacy and outreach to government and the public — not by delegating the task to lobbyists and trade associations, or relying on advertising campaigns.
Pricing is the hot button issue, but other areas of healthcare actually present many more headline-grabbing points of connection for consumers. Healthcare CEOs can build off the pandemic crisis to transform relations with society in these other areas. We see three key priorities:
Priority one: In the wake of COVID-19, leaders in healthcare must develop new, effective means of assuring health coverage for all Americans. This need not entail an unrealistic “Medicare for All” approach, but the sector needs to take some ownership of the solutions, for example by offering approaches that build on the better aspects of the Affordable Care Act while fixing what is not working. A strong symbolic step — with potentially huge reputational benefits — would be taking accountability for vaccinating everyone against COVID-19, once a vaccine is created.
Priority two: Make healthcare easy to access and patient-friendly. The meltdown during the pandemic in accessing and supplying basic needs such as masks and hospital gowns, the disconnects between public and private systems, the mixed directives on how individuals should behave safely — all this and countless more examples have made Americans aware that the system is often disconnected and dysfunctional. True, much of the problem lies with government. But the private sector is where the solutions will be created. CEOs across the healthcare ecosystem need to join hands to make it work for patients. And they must push to make government agencies more effective and accountable.
Priority three: Revisit what it means to operate with integrity and accountability. People rightly judge healthcare companies — and consulting firms and third parties that act for them -- by what they see and experience, not by what companies say. Just about every company in the sector has integrity and compliance statements. But from the public’s point of view, the real-world record is jarring, from ethical failures in clinical trials, to sales and marketing issues, to misbilling and overbilling by healthcare systems. We may understand that it’s a minority of actors who are most to blame. However, it’s vital that all the players in the sector join hands to raise standards of behavior, for everyone.
This is a rare moment — perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime moment — when industry leaders can press the reset button in all three of these areas. Very often, healthcare companies trail behind the expectations of society. But right now, they can build a sustainable edge in societal approval. By setting the right course today, CEOs in healthcare should seize this moment to earn trust for the long term.