Part of a Global Health Community: A Conversation with PhRMA's Chairman

Part of a Global Health Community: A Conversation with PhRMA's Chairman

04.12.11 | By Kate Connors

Later this week, PhRMA will be conducting our 2011 Annual Meeting, convening stakeholders from across the spectrums of healthcare, policy and regulation. Here, I speak with sanofi-aventis CEO Chris Viehbacher - who also serves as the chairman of PhRMA's board, about one of his priority issues for the meeting.

Can you tell us more about why prevention is one of the three themes of this year's PhRMA Annual Meeting?

Absolutely. We are part of a global health community and we have made a commitment to patients that we would help them live stronger, healthier, more productive lives. We strive to do that daily through the research that we conduct, and we have made tremendous progress. But we absolutely know that there's more to health than treatment. There's prevention, and it's exceedingly important. In the end, by teaching improved prevention and disease management through lifestyle changes, better nutrition, and innovative new medicines and vaccines, we may be able to say that we lived up to that important commitment.

How can prevention and treatment work together?

Well, as an example, let's look at diabetes. Thanks to medical advances, diabetes can be controlled. However, overall improved health - such as diet and exercise - can help prevent certain cases of diabetes in the first place. In addition, for those who do develop the condition, controlling it well in the short-term can help to prevent escalated diabetes-related complications, like hospitalization, amputation and stroke - in the long-term. All of this - prevention, control, and treatment - can add up to better overall health for millions of Americans.

I have to ask: Why would the CEO of a biopharmaceutical company support prevention? I think a lot of our readers might think that sounds counterintuitive.

First, we serve patients. That's our guiding principle. And if we can serve them well by advocating prevention, then that's what we're going to do. For many healthcare stakeholders, like physicians, we're trusted sources of information. So perhaps our message of health will resonate throughout the system.

Second, biopharmaceuticals offer a lot of potential for disease prevention and control. For example, let's go back to diabetes. Studies have found that patients with diabetes who don't consistently take their diabetes medicines as prescribed are 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalized than patients who followed their treatment regimens more than 80 percent of the time. Those medicines may not be preventing diabetes, but they're preventing the sort of symptoms and related conditions that lead to hospitalizations. If we can help keep America's patients out of the hospital, that's the right thing to do.

Other than providing medicines that can help control disease, what can really be done to advocate prevention?

I like to talk about the Asheville Project, in North Carolina. That project found that involving pharmacists in a closer way with their patients - if you teach them healthcare coaching, if you get them to work with patients on improving their adherence to treatment regimens - in the city of Asheville reduced the average medical expenses of type 2 diabetes patients by 40 percent in the first year alone and continued that reduction over a five-year period while also improving productivity and reduced absenteeism.

That's just one city, but for me, the take-home message is that by creating a more-cohesive healthcare community - by, for example, making better use of pharmacists' expertise, training, and relationships with patients - we can really make a difference.

But this will require consistent and sustained programs and policies at the local, state and national levels, along with great coordination amongst all stakeholders, including governments, the private sector, local organizations, and more.

You mention cost savings as a benefit of the Asheville Project. What sort of effect do you think prevention could have on healthcare overall?

I think it could have a profound effect. Unfortunately, our current healthcare model focuses on acute care. Unless we focus more on health, we are never going to get healthcare costs under control. We cannot just simply talk about how to make healthcare affordable without looking at what the drivers of cost are. And today, $3 out of every $4 spent on healthcare is to treat chronic diseases. Most of those chronic diseases are preventable. They're controllable. And yet, if you ask a physician, they'll tell you there's no billing code for prevention. So where's the incentive?

Quite simply, this is something that needs to happen. Let's go back to diabetes. When you look at where the trajectory of diabetes is heading, we're expecting to see more than 400 million people around the world to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. A patient with type 2 diabetes costs twice as much as the average patient in the healthcare system. Meanwhile, in the U.S. alone, one in three children born since the year 2000 will eventually develop type 2 diabetes. Given the burden this represents for patients and the healthcare system as a whole, without better prevention, this could become unsustainable.

Throughout the biopharmaceutical sector, we're proud of the medical advances that we have created, have contributed to, and are currently studying. And we do hope that if you get sick, we can help treat you. But that's not the way the healthcare model should be, here or around the world.

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