Emails and Ethos: the Senate Stent Report, a Corporate Culture Wake-up Call?

(The following is a guest commentary from Deborah Shaw, Director of Education at Angioplasty.Org.)

These leaked Abbott emails (in the Senate Finance Committee Report on Cardiac Stents regarding Dr. Midei in Maryland) reveal that healthcare marketing professionals, especially those that aren’t involved directly in patient care, sometimes forget that this is serious stuff. It’s about life and death: the work they do profoundly affects sick, vulnerable people who are afraid they might die, and who could be your dad or your daughter.

The media response occurs in a climate where there is, in fact, evidence and concern that American healthcare is overly interventional and procedure-oriented. Everyone in the field knows there are some physicians who probably jump into stenting too quickly in borderline cases. It’s a question of professional opinion and probably not a question of negligence, but overly aggressive treatment is real.

The outcry from the media, and the Senate’s investigation, is simplistic, inaccurate and misleading, but it demonstrates a decline in the public trust. I’d urge industry folks to think of this as a warning sign, a wake-up call, kind of like finding out your cholesterol is climbing (and I’m sure their blood pressure is). It might be time to do some diagnostics on your company’s climate, ethos, tone. Communicating the science behind medical products that offer genuine improvement in efficacy and patient outcomes is what ought to be the focus of sales efforts, not fashioning the flashiest trade show event, lavishly courting physician-suitors, or taking a gung-ho “How do we do it? Volume!!” marketing approach.

Doing good things and making money are not oppositional goals: well-managed companies with good products do make profits. But the first responsibility, the mission, for healthcare organizations, is to improve the quality of patients’ lives; after that, and only after that, is the objective to maximize sales. That sounds naive and idealistic to some industry professionals (and it’s very hard to get those individuals to invest in substantive public education because it’s not quantifiable, doesn’t contribute to quarterly results). But this might be a good moment for industry leaders to check in on the mission, and make sure your company’s focus is on the long-term business of science in the interest of patients, over the more short-sighted science of business in the interest of market penetration. In the long run it’s the more profitable approach — and less likely to lead to hysterical Senate investigations.

Staying on, and communicating, that mission requires visionary corporate leadership, objective analysis of data, difficult choices that put prudence, patients and science in the forefront, and vigilance in keeping the corporate culture on track.

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