How can we build trust in the pharmaceutical and life sciences industry?

In pharmaceuticals and life sciences, trustworthiness is the single most important driver of reputation. However, historically the industry has been perceived to be mainly focussed on making money out of patients and interested in price rather than outcomes. Various public polls in recent months also show that the industry is subject to the same rising popular mistrust of public and private institutions. For example, a survey by Ipsos/MORI exploring the issue of public trust in pharma companies, as well as governments, healthcare systems, and the corporate world in general showed that only 48% of more than 18,000 people across 23 countries think that pharmaceutical companies will treat them fairly (well behind supermarkets who finished top with 69%).

Recently my colleagues and I had the pleasure of being invited to take part in a roundtable discussion with the Lord Mayor of the City of London, Alderman Charles Bowman, to discuss how we advance trust in the pharmaceuticals and life sciences industry. The Lord Mayor launched the City of London Corporation’s initiative The business of trust in November 2017, which seeks to improve the trustworthiness of UK businesses and to understand how these views may differ across communities and sectors, and to use this insight to raise awareness and make recommendations


It was was attended by CEOs and business leaders from across the sector. Rt Hon Alan Milburn, former Health Secretary, also joined us to reflect on the issue based on his experience in government and as an adviser to PwC and other businesses. Here are some of the themes that emerged in discussion:

To what extent is the industry comfortable with transparency?

“The industry is fundamentally good - but can this be compatible with the profit it makes?”

“As an industry, we are scared of regulation.”

Increased transparency by the industry could improve its image with all stakeholders. Most consumers know very little about the pharmaceutical industry’s significant financial pressures and unique business model. Attendees discussed the importance of transparency but that it can be a challenge, agreeing that often companies decide to segment trust, focussing only on specific stakeholders. Regulation can also make it harder for companies to communicate directly with their consumers, which shows that there are also structural challenges to gaining trust.

The industry is defensive, not proactive.

“The industry is not telling its story.”

“Social media has changed everything.”

The changing way that media is consumed, combined with less public understanding of the complex value chain in heath, means that the industry feels it is less likely to be presented in a balanced way. The group discussed examples of other major brands who have taken active measures to successfully improve their public perception (e.g Mars’ collaboration with the United Nations World Food Programme). However, one attendee reflected on how recent philanthropic activities by big pharmaceutical companies have been played down to avoid any risk of scrutiny rather than taking the opportunity to share an authentic and positive story.

Focus on purpose, social good and better outcomes.

“In the UK NHS is religion for a reason, it does actually work on a macro level.”

“In pharma, there is a distinction with biotech because there is a clear association with scientific breakthroughs.”

The UK is a great place for research and development. We discussed the importance of recognising how the industry meets wider societal needs and acts with a stated purpose. More concentrated efforts to communicate the industry’s role in improving health, beyond the profit it makes, will improve trust in the industry.

It was a fascinating debate and we all came away inspired to do more to think about how we can improve trust in the industry. You can share your views by completing the Lord Mayor’s Business of Trust survey here.

Lucy Stapleton | Partner, UK Pharmaceutical & Life sciences leader
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