If we’re going to absorb one lesson from the past few years, it should be that the common wisdom regarding what is and is not politically possible should be greeted with skepticism at best, distrust at worst. For healthcare companies, it’s important to be realistic about American public opinion of the healthcare system and how those various forces are likely to intersect with policymakers in the years to come.
The most visible aspect of this is the rapid shifting of the Overton Window on single-payer healthcare. While the United States is one of the few developed nations without a universal healthcare system, the employer-based private insurance system is so woven into American life that, for decades, any proposals to replace it with a public system have been seen as the domain of the fringe left.
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '17 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine
In 2014, 21 percent of Americans favored a “single payer” approach to healthcare. As of June this year, that number has climbed to 33 percent. Even more notable is how rapidly this idea seems to be gaining steam among mainstream Democrats, with fifteen Senate Democrats — including 2020 contenders like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and even the traditionally centrist Cory Booker — backing Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill.
While there’s little chance of this legislation passing in the immediate future, the rush to sign on to this previously niche policy demonstrates that these politicians are well aware of a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo of the American healthcare system. Public opinion polls bear this out. Americans’ opinions of pharmaceutical companies are at an all-time low, with blame being cast for rising drug costs, along with an opioid epidemic currently devastating communities around the country. They see health insurance as needlessly bureaucratic and expensive, which forces them to make difficult decisions when they need to seek care.
This moment, then, is one in which healthcare companies must look at why public sentiment is turning against them and take concrete steps to right the ship and reset their image. In healthcare, as in so many other industries, the pace of innovation and change is outpacing the ability of people, the government and our institutions to keep up. The push for higher profits, for new products to hit the market and for new technological solutions to be implemented has created dissonance at best, actual damage at worst.
This fast pace — the development of new treatments, the implementation of more efficient practices, the adoption of new business models — doesn’t have to be viewed as a negative, but it does mean that healthcare companies have a new level of responsibility both in understanding the potential side effects of what they bring to market, as well as in how they message new approaches to the public, to policy makers, and to the media.
Reclaiming lost integrity and recapturing public trust will require a concerted communications effort on multiple fronts — backed by some tangible changes that demonstrate how innovations are serving public health outcomes and are not solely motivated by maximizing shareholder value.
First, there must be an effort made to have a dialogue with communities across America that shows that healthcare companies — be they insurers, pharmaceutical innovators, or healthcare providers — understand why people are skeptical and are responsive to these concerns. Companies should be willing to face tough questions and engage in some combination of listening tours, corporate social responsibility efforts, social media outreach and more that provides a platform for education on both sides.
Healthcare companies should work to be repositioned as allies, not obstacles, in the fight for better health outcomes. They should not make it seem like the status quo is enough, but instead make the case that they offer the tools and expertise needed to solve real concerns with healthcare delivery in the United States.
Parallel to this effort, there must be a commitment to a wholesale reputation overhaul and even working against bad actors, putting in place policies that forego short-term profit gain in favor of building long-term trust, and deploying a strong messaging effort that demonstrates an understanding of why public opinion on the industry has soured.
This must be coupled with an optimistic, forward-leaning campaign that highlights advances in health outcomes — new treatments, new innovations, new ways to achieve access to services — that show real, tangible ways that underserved and disaffected communities are being buoyed by a vibrant healthcare industry.
Finally, these efforts must be backed with a strong outreach program aimed at the political decision makers who are responding to this same public frustration with the healthcare industry. Doing so will mean going beyond traditional lobbying channels — especially as a growing trend towards populism might make such efforts less effective. Instead, our political leaders and those in a position to influence their decision-making should be surrounded by a messaging ecosystem that exposes them to new ideas, changes the common wisdom and reinforces positive messaging around what the healthcare industry brings to the economy, and pushes for better public health. This means that, more than ever, a deep understanding of how these elite decision makers educate themselves on the issues that may affect their political futures — through media, through peers and through social pressures — is necessary.
The tide hasn’t yet turned for the American healthcare industry. If left unchecked, public sentiment will likely continue to rise against it. Key sectors of this vibrant economic engine could find themselves fighting for survival.
By committing to a robust program designed to reset the industry’s relationship with the American public — one which may require confronting some real issues with both how healthcare companies have positioned themselves and messaged their priorities — these companies can find surer ground and reestablish themselves as a trusted cornerstone of American life.
Peter Prodromou is President and Chief Executive Officer of Racepoint Global.