Given the entire healthcare system has been turned upside down by COVID-19, this period has been especially challenging for the pharmaceutical industry in many respects, from R&D (disruption of clinical trials) to Commercial (launching new products or sustaining HCP connectivity with limited direct detailing). Further, when the world looked to the pharma industry to rapidly develop innovative vaccines, a number of pharma companies responded decisively to the challenge by developing, testing, and delivering new vaccines in record time. These herculean efforts had the potential to be a ‘pivot point’ in terms of positive recognition and a very visible testament to the value of the pharmaceutical industry. 

However, this hoped-for recognition hinges on an overarching challenge long plaguing the industry -  ‘trust’.  Patients’ trust in the pharma industry has been historically low relative to other industries, which is somewhat surprising considering unlike many other industries, the medicines, treatments and services provided by the pharmaceutical industry save and improve lives. So, in this extraordinary time when pharma companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and soon others are ‘riding to the rescue’, have they now achieved a perception boost?

To find out, Accenture recently surveyed 500 patients across multiple therapeutic conditions, ethnicities, gender and ages in the US to understand the impact on perceptions of trust, defined as: A firm belief in the integrity, strength, truthfulness and competency of someone or something.

The pharma industry has ‘earned’ some modest gains in trust from patients due to vaccine development. Yet along with those gains, patients’ expectations have now been elevated even further.

What patients told us

When evaluating trust across a wide range of industries, consumers trust the ‘Health & Life Sciences’ industry the most. In fact, it was rated almost double as trustworthy as any other industry. In a time where healthcare is top-of-mind, this isn’t surprising. However, when patients ranked which segments of ‘Health & Life Sciences’ were most trusted, respondents said healthcare providers as the ‘frontline heroes” (see Chart #1). Unfortunately, the pharma industry ranked last relative to all other segments, even including our polarizing government.  Perhaps this reflects latent negative sentiments which patients have historically conveyed, as seen in other ‘reputation’ surveys*.

When patients were asked to rate the impact of COVID-19 on trust in the pharma industry—specifically in the context of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine launches—there was a positive effect, with 35% of patients saying their trust had significantly or moderately increased. However, the net impact was only a modest increase in trust (+15%), as 45% said there was no change in their level of trust and 20% said their trust decreased (see Chart #2). While the speed and intensity of vaccine development fostered trust with some patients, for others it raised concerns around compromising safety & efficacy.

Patients expectations of pharma

When patients were asked what their expectations were for research and development (R&D) in terms of drug development, almost half of patients clearly indicated that they had significantly higher expectations for the pharma industry (Chart #3). This reflects an expectation that the rapid discovery and delivery of the COVID vaccines should be applied to the development of treatments and cures in other therapeutic areas. The prevailing sentiment is, “Why can’t pharma apply this new & improved approach to my own condition?” While this may seem, ‘unfair’ to those in industry, we need to remember that in patients’ eyes, it’s about them, not the industry.

Patients’ heightened R&D expectations aren’t only derived from the vaccine development and distribution process. They’ve seen how other industries have re-invented themselves during the pandemic to adapt to a new reality and believe that pharma should be able to transition as well. 

What this means for pharma

While not quite the shift we hoped for, the results of the survey show that the pharma industry has ‘earned’ some modest gains in trust from patients due to vaccine development. Yet along with those gains, patients’ expectations have now been elevated even further.  Patients in the US want to see a broader sense of urgency in the development of new medicines for non-COVID conditions relevant to their own lives. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for the industry to transform the traditional approaches to drug development, where new digital and analytics capabilities can accelerate the processes to better meet these elevated expectations in the new reality. If the industry can rise to this challenge, this will not only increase patients’ trust but also clearly have a positive impact on business performance and ultimately better patient outcomes. 

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Part #2 of this blog will address ways pharma can bridge the ‘trust gap’ challenge outlined here to make a sustainable positive impact.


*Accenture’s Patient Behavior Survey (May 2020) shows pharma as well as other healthcare stakeholders did see an increase in trust when the COVID-19 vaccine efforts were announced.  The difference is now that vaccines have actually been delivered, there hasn’t been as significant of an impact as might have been expected.  

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The opinions, statements, and assessments in this report are solely those of the individual author(s) and do not constitute legal advice, nor do they necessarily reflect the views of Accenture, its subsidiaries, or affiliates.

This document is intended for general informational purposes only and does not take into account the reader’s specific circumstances, and may not reflect the most current developments. Accenture disclaims, to the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, any and all liability for the accuracy and completeness of the information in this presentation and for any acts or omissions made based on such information. Accenture does not provide legal, regulatory, audit, or tax advice. Readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel or other licensed professionals.

Copyright © 2020 Accenture.

All rights reserved. Accenture and its logo are registered trademarks.

Whitney Baldwin

Senior Principal – Patient Experience Center of Excellence, Lead

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