Pharma and biotech rebound in annual trust study, but there's still room for improvement

Fifty-one percent of Americans now say they trust the pharma industry, according to Edelman's annual trust survey.

When it comes to pharma, consumers still have trust issues. But the good news from Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer study is that things are improving. 

Fifty-one percent of Americans now say they trust the industry, a gain of 4% year over year. Biotech saw an even bigger jump of 12% to 62% this year. Both industries had dipped by 2% in the U.S. the year prior.

But while the news is good, it isn't great.

“What needs to be kept in mind is that four-point increase brings pharma to a score of 51 in the U.S.,” Kym White, Edelman’s global chair for the health sector, said in an interview. “Fifty-one is neutral territory though—from 50-59 is neutral or the undecided voters, while less than 50 is distrust territory. That means there is still room for significant improvement.”

Another problem? Continued unfavorable perceptions of pharma in the U.S. In new questions this year, Edelman asked people if they think pharma puts profits ahead of people—and eight in 10 said yes. Another new question about government intervention had eight in 10 people agree that the government needs to do more to regulate the pharma industry.

“Progress is being made with that four-point jump in the United States, and yet I don’t think it’s safe to say the wind is at our backs. There are still significant challenges moving forward,” White said.

The progress pharma is making is likely due to several factors. Leading the way is innovation, she said, with game-changing progress in areas like immuno-oncology, hepatitis C and rare diseases leading to increased trust from patients and consumers in general. Other reputation-burnishing initiatives from pharma include more aggressive corporate marketing campaigns, stronger leadership stances, and the spillover effect from the halo of technology, like IBM Watson pharma partnerships and the Cancer Moonshot.

“Collectively, all of these factors are coalescing to drive some of the increase we are seeing in trust. I do not believe that it is just about one thing. But having said that, minus innovation, it’s hard to imagine that trust would be moving forward at the pace in which it is,” White said.

Globally, the trust story for pharma was also mixed. Edelman collects data from 28 countries, but only 11 markets showed positive (60% or higher) trust scores, with trust declining year over year in 14 countries.

The Edelman study also looks at other industries as well as the overall healthcare industry. The news in general for healthcare—which includes hospitals and clinics, biotech, OTC, insurance and pharma as categories—was also positive. While the industry is still the second least-trusted in the U.S., healthcare gained three percentage points in 2017 with 62% of people now saying they trust it. Only financial services, at 60%, fared worse. Technology was the most trusted industry, scoring a 75% among Americans, followed by education and retail, which were tied at 73%.

Among the more general findings of the larger study across industries was that employees are now the most trusted spokespeople for a company, while CEOs hit an all-time low with only 37% of people globally ranking them as extremely or very credible, down 12% from last year.