Friday, January 26, 2007

If Bill Gates Ran Pharma

In the January 2007 issue of Pharmaceutical Executive Magazine, columnist Sander Flaum contributed a piece entitled "If Bill Gates Ran PhRMA." Flaum believes pharma's (as opposed to PhRMA's) problems are mostly a matter of image and all that's needed is a better spokesperson:
"Pharma has a classic image problem. Sometimes the products don't do what they're supposed to. Innovation is key, but too slow. Business practices can look sleazy. What if our spokesman was a guy who'd beaten those problems?"
As it happens, Gates has taken this seriously and was heard to proclaim: "If the pharmaceutical industry developed and promoted drugs like Microsoft develops and promotes software, we would all be paying only $25 a year for all the drugs we need."

A pharmaceutical executive standing nearby whispered to his companion lest Gates overhear what he said, "Yeah, and if drugs were like software that Microsoft develops and promotes, they would stop working for no reason, and when you tried to get a different brand, there wouldn't be any."

Even Bill Gates Can't Fix Pharma's Image with the Same Old Tactics
All seriousness aside, not even Bill Gates can save the pharmaceutical industry, especially using the tactics that Flaum suggests in his article. Most of these are the same tactics the industry already employs today.

To counteract the "free gifts to physicians" brouhaha, for example, Flaum would have Gates respond with this red herring often used currently by the industry without help from Gates: "Is there anyone who seriously thinks a doctor will write one brand over another because of a ballpoint pen or a pad of paper?" Of course not! But in the eyes of many physicians, patients and consumers, excessive branded gift items littering a doctor's office may be an important issue (see "Drug Rep Toys" for an amusing accounting of gifts physicians receive from pharma companies; some pens do not even work!). Gates, according to Flaum should also berate the AMA, thus further alienating its customers.

Gates is successful because Microsoft is a virtual monopoly (success breeds more success). Go ahead and try to run your business without Windows machines and see how far you get. The pharma industry does not have that advantage.

Besides, even Gates is perhaps not the best role model for PhRMA to follow. I read a commentary by an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in today's Wall Street Journal that said the Gates Foundation was blasted three weeks ago in the Los Angeles Times, which ran a series accusing the foundation of reaping "vast financial gains" from corporations with "environmental lapses, employment discrimination, disregard for worker rights, or unethical practices" that "contravene its good works."

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