Building trust in pharma: the role of medical communications

Rebecca Burge

In the past year, the public have looked to science and medicine for solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, and, currently, public trust in pharma is at an all-time high. During an alumni lecture at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, Chris Winchester (Open Pharma co-founder and CEO of Oxford PharmaGenesis) and Paul Farrow (Group Communications Director at Open Pharma and Oxford PharmaGenesis) discussed the ways in which trust in pharma can be maintained and the important role that medical communications play in this.

Public trust in pharma has increased dramatically since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, with a record-breaking trust level of 73% recorded by the global Edelman Trust Barometer in May 2020. Results from the Harris Poll show that 62% of the US public now have a positive opinion of the pharma industry. It is likely that the development of tests, treatments and vaccines by pharma is responsible for this increase in positive opinion, but it is not known whether the effect of these will be enduring. In their lecture, Chris and Paul encourage pharma companies to take an active approach to have the best chance of maintaining public trust.

One way in which pharma, and indeed academia, can build trust is by disclosing clinical trial data. The US Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007 mandates this by requiring sponsors of applicable clinical trials to report their results within 1 year of completion. However, many of the biggest sponsors of clinical trials still fail to sufficiently report their results. Notably, results reporting was shown to be more common among trials with an industry sponsor (such as pharma companies) compared to those with non-industry sponsors (such as hospitals, academic institutions and foundations), but there is still room for improvement in both groups.

Public engagement is also key and could be improved by involving more patients in clinical trial design and making research findings more widely accessible. Plain language summaries, which help to communicate findings to a lay audience, and open access publishing have a particularly important role to play. To help support the call for open access publishing, pharma companies should request open access from journals that do not currently offer it. Furthermore, increasing awareness of Good Publications Practice (GPP) guidelines among all those involved in the communication of medical research would help to ensure that publications are produced in a responsible and ethical manner.

Professional medical writers can help pharma to produce high-quality publications. A study from Oxford PharmaGenesis showed that medical writing support was associated with more complete reporting of clinical trial data and a higher quality of written English. In the lecture, Paul highlighted that these findings “provide evidence of the value that medical writing support brings to the communication of pharma-sponsored research”. The pharma industry has contributed several best practice guidelines for the publication of industry-sponsored research, for example, on how to communicate on conference abstracts and presentations, and has also helped to tackle issues around predatory publishing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on pharma and offered it the opportunity to demonstrate the value that it brings to society. Pharma and related industries should embrace openness, including the use of plain language summaries and open access publishing, to help maintain public trust. For those who missed it, a recording of the lecture is available on YouTube.