Integrating two worlds: Pharma industry and communities

CSR activities for pharmaceutical companies can range from increased access to medicines at subsidized rates to establish sound healthcare systems at locations with minimal access.

He has also been awarded as CSR Professional of the Year 2016 by India CSR Network.

By Abhishek Ranjan

My journey in the social development sector began in 1997, at the age of 16, studying in high school. I joined my neighborhood rotary club’s youth movement and volunteered to be a part of its numerous social initiatives. My first experience was a pulse polio drive. Twice a year, we would go into slums, provide the OPV oral vaccine and educate new mothers on the importance of taking the right medication at the right time.

During the visit, I would often see those who lost out on having these tiny drops on time, who have to live with that burden. This was my first ever experience at a community health program. I remember being distraught to realize, that I was too late in bringing these tiny drops to those who needed it the most. To realize that the drops were actually not very expensive, so why did it not make it to those who are suffering now? Was it their financial situation that prevented them from getting to it; and now these small children have to face these adversaries for the rest of their lives? This was just one of the numerous diseases that could have been prevented if it were for access to affordable healthcare. How on Earth did these bypass all these people I wondered?

Today, the largest internationally-coordinated public-private partnership for health has reduced polio by 99%. Polio now survives among the world’s poorest and most marginalized communities. Only Afghanistan and Pakistan have never stopped the transmission of polio which is truly unfortunate since polio is among the few diseases which CAN be eradicated completely. Small pox has been eradicated by vaccines potentially saving over five million lives annually. Measles and Whooping cough are on their way too.

Since then, I have been involved in many health camps, eye surgery camps, corrective disability surgery camps and have always wondered why all these measures are not accessible everywhere. Now, I have been in the social-development sector for nearly 2 decades, and I continue to believe that lack of access to healthcare is indeed a human rights issue.

As a CSR professional in the IT sector, it is imperative for me to continue to think about these issues, the challenges they face and explore solutions. This concern is embedded into my core and I worry every day for the future of healthcare. It was refreshing and encouraging to realize that Melinda and Bill Gates share the same concerns and are exploring new approaches which involve increasing advocacy and technical assistance, improving data systems and strengthening food systems as they realize that better data is needed to define a problem such as malnutrition, diagnose its root causes, design interventions and track its progress.

I feel that pharmaceuticals and healthcare can do a lot to bring together the care professionals and medicine to those in need. Companies in the pharmaceutical sector are uniquely placed in society in that it develops AND distributes healthcare products in a for-profit manner. For this reason they are also always under constant scrutiny. Pharmaceuticals like any other sector, needs to be careful about its reputation and can gain significantly from positive publicity.

It has become evident that besides growing the business, it is also important to build trustworthy and sustainable relationships with consumers and communities. This is essentially asking companies to look beyond their commercial activities and review their impact on the society around them. In the context of pharmaceuticals, this means to view everyone outside the company staff as consumers; patients seeking affordable healthcare.

This got me thinking about how the pharmaceutical companies can play a great place in society, working with the community. Developing nations are burdened with herculean socio-economic challenges like poverty, illiteracy, lack of healthcare etc. are still ubiquitous and the government has limited resources to tackle these challenges. However if a pharmaceutical company wants to embed itself to be a part of the solution, it must define its CSR goals and view the exercise as a long-term exercise to fulfill societal expectations to cultivate public goodwill.

They can increase access to medicines for locations in need and contribute to improving the health of a community. In doing so they could potentially gain a competitive edge due to the intelligence gathered to enter new markets leading to expansion of their consumer base, increase in cost-effectiveness and improved efficiency with an opportunity to innovate. Not to mention access to local governments and their members who could potentially assist in its expansion to underserved locations. Apart from the above, reputational benefits by way to changed perception by its consumers (and other stakeholders like funders, potential partners), employee satisfaction and greater ranking in indices such as Dow Jones Sustainability Index etc.

CSR activities for pharmaceutical companies can range from increased access to medicines at subsidized rates to establish sound healthcare systems at locations with minimal access. Companies can donate or offer differential pricing of its products to countries in need. They can strengthen healthcare systems by increasing infrastructure investments, expanding their product distribution capacity and providing supply-chain support where needed. They could go one step further and assist in improving local manufacturing (tech transfer), train local health care workers (on site or remotely) and even promote the uptake of health insurance in the area. Wouldn’t that be fantastic! Non-commercial targeted research and development specific to the area in need can also qualify as a sound CSR activity.

Today, the pharmaceutical industry relies heavily on technology for its process management, data analytics, and identification of cost-effective therapy and even to communicate with its customers. Pharmaceutical companies are primarily urban based. Companies are realizing that they have not been aggressive enough in penetrating into rural areas. With technology, companies will not require their key members to be physically be present at a site to monitor their experiments and train their field staff/factory workers. Even for patients, they can carry their genomic data to their doctor and receive tailor-made medicines for their own conditions. The advancement in 3-D printing has the potential to revamp the entire pharmaceutical supply chain to provide medicines to remote locations. The implications for the pharmaceutical industry due to the advent of technology is paramount. The possibilities are endless by merging the CSR projects with IT, the rural sector can be served to full potential. Pharma players who adopt this approach will be far more successful in their CSR initiatives long-term.

Pharma companies are now setting up rural toll-free booths to access their wider customer-base so as to provide much needed care, advice and health tips.  Set-up video-conferencing for rural clinics to prevent medication errors.  I remember how a few years ago, GlaxoSmithKline had partnered with tech giant – Vodafone for their innovative mobile technology to help vaccinate more children in Mozambique, Africa against common infectious diseases. The project aimed to establish mobile technology solutions to support healthcare workers, improve record keeping and enable better management of vaccine stock. The Pharma industry is now also beginning to analyze big data to obtain insights to address problems relating to variability in healthcare quality and expenditure. This means medicines can soon become more affordable.

These are exciting times.

The term – corporate social responsibility (CSR) is not new to you and me. However, it has evolved with time and has multiple interpretations for what it means for a business. CSR projects are not mere obligations, it is a method to de-risk potential damages and build corporate reputation. The pharmaceutical industry among others are all about innovation. So why not collaborate and explore more innovative ways to use technology to help communities and their people?

About the Author: The author is an international Marketing, CSR and Sustainability Professional. He is currently managing Global CSR and Sustainability programs for Brillio Technology. He is a member of Global CSR Guru Meet up and recently awarded as 100 top CSR professional in the world.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of India CSR.

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