Why Big Pharma’s Got a Serious Reputation Problem

In a new survey of 600 global patient advocacy groups, half said drug manufacturers had unfair pricing policies.

The reputation of pharmaceutical companies among patient groups fell 19% in one year. (Jorg Greuel/Getty Images)
Lorie A. Parch is a Los Angeles-based writer specializing in health and lifestyle topics.

In recent years, many pharmaceutical companies have been putting a lot more effort (and money) into improving their reputation among patients and patient advocacy groups. But is it working?

According to a new survey, they've still got a long way to go.

PatientView Quarterly, a U.K.-based research, publishing, and consultancy group that supports the patient rights movement, paid for and published this new, independent survey of patient groups around the globe, asking them to share what they really think of drug companies.

Specifically, patient groups were surveyed about their opinions of 29 leading multinational pharmaceutical companies, with an eye toward better understanding whether the drug companies really were effectively working with groups that advocate for patients and consumers. Though the patient groups were from all over the world, most were based in Europe.

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The survey’s findings won’t be heartening to the drug industry: Overall, the reputation of the pharma industry fell in 2012 compared to nearly the same survey done by the group in 2011. In fact, compared to 2011 data, the number of patient groups that said they thought the big companies had a “good” or “excellent” reputation during 2012 fell 19 percent—from 42 percent in 2011 to 34 percent in 2012. Only for-profit health insurers fared worse among seven types of healthcare industries (retail pharmacists got the highest marks from the groups).

Where have the pharmaceutical companies gone wrong? Half of the survey respondents said the companies lacked fair pricing policies in 2012. Nearly as many thought the industry wasn’t transparent enough about its corporate activities, and one-third felt pharma didn’t really have a patient-centered strategy in place.

The biggest declines between 2011 and 2012, in the opinion of the survey respondents, were in managing bad news about their products; being ethical in marketing practices; and having a good relationship with the media.

The survey also shared better news, including in its survey a list of companies that did have an effective patient-centered strategy in place, as voted on by the patient groups. At the top of the list was Novartis, which makes vaccines and drugs to treat cancer and hypertension, among other ailments, followed by Gilead Sciences and Pfizer.

Though big pharma claims to be focusing more on patients and not just on revenue, it’s hard to take their claims to heart when reading about the outsized profits many of them make, especially the large multinational firms. According to Forbes.com data for 2012, the number-one U.S. pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, is up 21 percent in profits from 2010.

But that’s nothing compared to number-three company Merck, whose profits increased over 628 percent in those two years, and number 10-ranked Allergan, whose numbers are up a staggering 155,650 percent over 2010 figures. Just four of the top 12 companies showed any decline since 2010, with Johnson & Johnson experiencing the biggest drop, of 27.5 percent.

Clearly, drug companies aren't hurting when it comes to money. But should it all be coming from our wallets?

What’s your opinion of large pharmaceutical companies? Do they deserve to make large profits because they take the risk of developing new drugs? Should they be forced to sell their medications at an affordable price?

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