Pharmaceutical Companies Need to Know Their Purpose

This may sound simplistic and obvious.  But, have you noticed lately that pharmaceutical companies appear to be struggling with a confusing array of seemingly contradictory strategic choices?  Some of these choices leave even the most knowledgeable industry followers wondering and speculating about the rationale behind the decisions.

Should they get bigger, should they downsize?  Should they acquire, grow organically, or divest? Should they be “pure” pharmaceutical plays or diversified healthcare companies?  Should they continue to exploit the US market or expand into emerging markets?  Should they rebuild and restructure R & D or move to a more flexible outsourcing model?  Should they focus on diseases, products, or technologies?  Are regulatory compliance, manufacturing quality, and integrity important for building trust and credibility or are they “envelops to be pushed” for competitive advantage and financial gain?  Strategic and tactical choices that can affect business today and well into the future.

So what’s the big deal?  Don’t all companies go through this?  Why is this important?

It’s important because, when a company determines who they are, finds its purpose, and develops a passion for what they do; strategic and daily operational decision making become easier and are more likely to deliver the organizational goals and objectives that support the company purpose.  This corporate understanding of “self” includes a deep seated set of behavioral expectations, values, and principles by which the company operates and does business.

Definition, consistency of behavior, and organizational alignment allow employees to embrace and support the corporate purpose in their daily activities.  Decisions become easier as choices and options either fit or don’t fit the behavioral values or purpose.  More importantly, employees, prospective employees, customers, collaborators, and investors all know what to expect from the company.

Despite all the mission and vision statements in their lobbies, I believe many of the Big Pharma companies today have lost their purpose and are confused about their ”self.”  With a fixation on near-term financial performance (their apparent purpose), they seem to be struggling to find the “quick fixes” to business success in the evolving new healthcare market.

Most pharmaceutical companies would never admit they have lost their purpose.  At the same time, if they were to explore this fundamental business principle, many might learn that even their management teams are uncertain, if not finding total organizational disagreement about who they are and what they do.

Branded Prescription Drugs at Generic Drug Prices

Over 70% of prescriptions today are filled with generic drugs.  Once a branded product loses patent protection, they experience generic erosion and a rapid decline in market share of prescriptions.  With the healthcare market becoming increasingly more managed (think government, insurers, and Pharmacy Benefits Managers) and the dramatic difference in price (generic drugs being significantly less expensive) it doesn’t take long for generic drugs to replace branded products in the market.

But …  what would happen if the branded product manufacturers (Big Pharma) started to “match generic drug prices” once their product patents expired?   As generic drugs of the branded product come to market, the branded product matches their price or even prices slightly lower than the generic drug to preserve their market share.    Surely, nobody could be a lower cost manufacturer than the innovator, brand manufacturer.

Let’s think about this. The branded company development costs are well behind them.  Manufacturing facilities, equipment, and staff are already in place.  Training, quality systems, and regulatory compliance requirements are also in place.  Operational efficiencies have been honed over years of production.  Branded manufacturers can certainly negotiate at least as good a terms on API (active pharmaceutical ingredients), packaging, and supplies as the generic drug companies.  And while branded manufacturers may have higher “overhead expenses” that’s an accounting allocation issue.  Building a patient base, marketing, sales, and supply chain logistics are already in place for the branded product.

The generic drug company on the other hand has to develop the generic product (formulation and establishing bioequivalence can be challenging), purchase and set up manufacturing capabilities (or retool what they have), source API, packaging, and supplies, put in place new manufacturing SOPs (standard operating procedures) and regulatory required quality processes.  They have to hire and train new personnel (or at least retrain current staff), develop their regulatory filing, and secure FDA approval.  They may even have to challenge the patent validity of the innovator product.  And once approved, they have to market to and negotiate with the supply chain and the managed market.  In the end, these are all new costs for generic drug companies that have to be covered in the price of their new product entry.

In the past, branded products matching generic drug prices would have meant leaving money on the table and forfeiting profits as generic drugs gradually made their way into the market over a period of years.  Today, however, it only takes a matter of months before a majority of branded prescriptions drugs can be converted to generics.

I’m sure somebody has already done the math on this from a Big Pharma profitability perspective but I still believe that “matching generic drug prices” could have value for patients and Big Pharma.   Matching generic drug prices would preserve a large patient base of lifetime revenue (albeit at lower margins) for the branded product.  It also rewards loyal patients with lower prices for the same drugs they may have been taking for years. It would certainly make it easier and more efficient for healthcare providers, patients, and the managed market in that there would be no reason to worry about changing patient prescriptions.   And, while Big Pharma might view this as “throwing in the towel” ,  this approach would be a challenging “game changer” for the generic drug industry.

The Reality of Pharmaceutical Industry Predictions is Coming True

The commentary and highlights of pharmaceutical industry challenges noted in Duff Wilson’s article “Patent Woes Threaten Drug Firms” in The New York Times (3/6/2011) and the Morgan Stanley report “An Avalanche of Risk? Downgrading to Cautious” come as no surprise if you have read the book Pharmaplasia.  This disconcerting pharmaceutical industry situation has been decades in the making and unfortunately, will take decades to turn around.

Those looking for or postulating near-term quick fixes from strategic restructurings, mega-mergers, technology acquisitions, or breakthrough serendipitous discoveries to resolve the industry dysfunction will be sadly disappointed.  As described in Pharmaplasia™, the problems in the pharmaceutical industry are deep rooted and involve more than just a lack of  R & D productivity.

Sure there are going to be the occasional successful new product introductions that give us hope that the industry is recovering but even those introductions will have been the result of decades of development work and there will be too few to really make a significant impact on restoring healthy consistent revenue growth for the industry.  For the pharmaceutical industry there are no quick fixes and it could take decades for the impact of the multitude of strategic efforts today to really begin delivering the types of financial results expected from the magnitude of investment being made by the industry.

In addition to fixing R & D, the pharmaceutical industry business model must become more efficient (increase operational productivity and reduce waste), must be more responsive to healthcare market needs, and must replace traditional sales and marketing tactics with healthcare market embraced programs.  Success will depend on competent leadership that is more interested in satisfying evolving new healthcare provider needs and patient well-being than “driving revenues”, satisfying Wall Street, and building personal financial wealth.

In the end, a more prosperous future for the pharmaceutical industry will come from discovering and developing truly innovative new treatments that provide clinically meaningful benefits over currently available therapeutic alternatives.  This will take a major change in R&D philosophy with a much more comprehensive basic sciences approach to finding preventions, treatments, and cures for diseases rather than relying on historical “tweaking of chemistry” and “trial and error” approaches of matching compounds with postulated disease targets.