Does pharma value profits over patients? More than 9 in 10 Americans think so, poll says

It’s yet another painful pill—make that poll—for the pharma and healthcare industry.

A new Harris Poll found that only 9% of Americans believe that pharma and biotech companies put patients before profits. The rest of the healthcare industry didn’t fare much better, with only 16% of respondents reporting confidence that insurance companies put patients first, and 23% believing hospitals do. Doctors and nurses came out the best, but still only about one-third (36%) of Americans feel those healthcare workers put patients ahead of profits.  

Still, the news is the worst for pharma—one of the few corporate industries whose reputation has been on a steady decline over the past four years, Wendy Salomon, vice president of reputation management and public affairs at Harris Poll owner Nielsen, told FiercePharma. Its slide is unique even among other industries that have also faced unfavorable news or crisis, such as financial services and automotive.

And pharma didn't fare much better with the question the survey asked, about positive impact on the country. Pharma ranked lowest at 26%, the same as insurers. Meanwhile, 51% of respondents listed providers, 49% named hospitals and 39% said store pharmacists have a positive effect on America.

“The pharmaceutical industry is held in particularly low regard right now,” Salomon said. “The industry headline overall is simply they’re not given credit for the value they bring. It’s amazing to me how important this industry is to the overall health of Americans … yet when you ask do they make a positive difference in the country, only one in four people say they do.”  

While the news isn’t good, Salomon said it does point to opportunity for pharma.

“It’s not just a bad reputation, it’s a lack of an understanding of the social role and the valuable role the industry plays,” she said. “… Looking out ahead, I think we’ll see even more interest (by pharma) in managing reputation and not just a brand portfolio.”

That would mark a shift for pharma, whose traditional marketing and communications strategies are built around bolstering drug brands, not creating company brands and telling their corporate stories. But times have changed, and corporate brands are more important than ever to consumers.

“We know that Americans increasingly want to understand the corporate character of the companies they engage with—whether they want to work for them, buy their product or want them to expand in their communities,” Salomon said.

Reputation is an ongoing hot issue for pharma companies, especially thanks to the negative attention the industry's price-hiking practices have recently garnered. Some companies, though, have claimed the issues are isolated rather than industry-wide. Pfizer CEO Ian Read told the World Economic Forum in Davos last week that the pharma’s reputation problem comes from the unethical outliers in the industry.