Ryan Kuresman, Kim Sammons and Trey Watkins
Ryan Kuresman, Kim Sammons and Trey Watkins co-authored this article.

One in 500 American lives has now been lost in the war on COVID-19, and the fight shows no signs of ending anytime soon. In fact, most epidemiologists believe the best we can hope for is to eventually downgrade SARS-CoV-2 to a permanent endemic threat.

Yet, in the most literal Darwinian sense, we're adapting. More people are using telehealth to provide quality care to Americans in their homes using technology-enabled remote patient monitoring. We're seeing a commercial explosion of new technology and innovative approaches with the promise to transform drug development and prognostic and diagnostic medicine. Our regulatory system has learned to move faster without compromising safety or efficacy.

Meanwhile, new biotech/biopharma partnerships have married innovation and manufacturing might to speed vaccines and therapies to market as never before. And the pandemic's tragic toll on underserved ethnic and racial groups has forced our nation to open a new dialogue on inequities that have perpetuated poorer health for too many people for too long.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '21 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine
(view PDF version)

As COVID-19 spread with astonishing alacrity, we've been reminded about just how globalized and interconnected we are. And while the virus has been a great divider as it exacerbated longstanding disparities and injustices, it also leveled the field as it ravaged communities and systems, regardless of GDP. It has reiterated the core of global health security: none of us is healthy until all of us are healthy.

Yet even that word itself—"health"—has taken on a more expansive meaning. No longer limited to its more classic definition of "lack of disease or ailment," health has become synonymous with the human experience, simultaneously social, economic, political, medical and emotional in nature.

Healthcare communicators and public affairs leaders are now on the front lines to add our skills and experiences to perhaps one of the biggest global public health campaigns of our lifetime: to vaccinate the world, educate our fellow global citizens to help save lives and elevate the reputation of an industry more crucial than ever to human survival.

Progress demands sustained actions

In 2019, the biopharmaceutical industry was at a reputational low point: Americans were more than twice as likely (58 percent) to rate the pharma industry negatively than positively (27 percent), according to a Gallup annual industry ranking poll. However, as the world battled a pandemic and drug companies worked to discover and test crucial diagnostics, therapies and vaccines, positive sentiment soared. A Harris Poll released this May found that 60 percent of consumers now rate pharma companies favorably.

Yet, the pressure on the industry remains intense. While progress has been made, fresh scrutiny builds in Congress, with a sharpened focus on health policies that have left too many behind. And, as policymakers consider the meaning of infrastructure and what constitutes a system, global leaders find themselves reconsidering the value of intellectual property at the World Health Assembly and in the halls of the European Commission.

The new normal of COVID-19 requires a new social contract focusing squarely on the comprehensive needs of all societies—one that leverages value chains across the board to ensure the health and safety of our people, our economies and our environment. Such a contract must maintain a long-term commitment to yield real impact beyond image or reputation.

Pre-pandemic, we saw a growing expectation of investors and the public that industry do more to demonstrate its commitment to the public good. A substantial majority of biopharma industry players answered that call through myriad corporate social responsibility programs and philanthropic investments that have improved the health and well-being of communities around the world.

Today, however, our global social contract requires a new level of corporate social accountability in which companies are answerable for their actions. It means integrating purpose with day-to-day goals and commercial opportunities, as well as connecting industry efforts to a higher mission that creates an authentic connection between the work and the well-being of a world under siege.

Biopharma is uniquely equipped to deliver a healthier future

Health communications professionals find themselves at a historic juncture, with an opportunity to leverage the unprecedented public perception of the biopharmaceutical industry to broker a new path forward—one that unites industry, communities and policymakers together in service of a collective vision: a healthier future for all.

By bringing traditionally separate functions together, organizations can more agilely work toward a set of shared goals, rather than being divided by brand, function or discipline.

The Public Affairs Trifecta model is built on the premise that global health, advocacy and public policy should exist interdependently, whenever possible. As in a horse racing trifecta, every horse runs the race, but when bet on together, they have the potential to yield a far greater return.

A trifecta strategy

Global public health: In an increasingly globalized world, we've seen that what happens in Wuhan, China impacts what happens in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our health and well-being—physically, emotionally, societally and economically—are more intertwined than ever, and without resilient systems in place, they face the threat of buckling entirely. Companies must ensure that their efforts are grounded in a true public health need validated by epidemiological trends, one that drives a global agenda and transcends borders, whether that be a community, a population or the world. Now is the time to revisit that focus to ensure we acknowledge the vast intersection of experiences and determinants of health.

Advocacy: Knowing the problem you want to solve goes a long way in aligning on an agenda. As critical as having those impacted at the table, regardless of disease, gender, race, identity or geography, we should also look to non-traditional voices to find unique opportunities for meaningful change. We must work directly and deeply with communities to ensure that efforts are aligned with needs, and that the paths we take to address them produce measurable results.

Policy: Long-term change is solidified through policy. By identifying and overcoming the policy barriers and gaps that can lead to sustainable change, we can ensure greater public health impact for more people. If we always think with policy goals in mind, asking first what solution is needed and what role we can play as citizens and corporate partners, we can better anticipate the human infrastructure required, bring the right people to the table and activate communities.

A winning way forward

Companies are no longer beholden to their shareholders alone; they're accountable to their stakeholders across a broad ecosystem—from their employees and consumers to the societies and environments in which they operate. People expect more, and their demands for corporations to be held accountable for their commitments and actions will remain.

As public perception—and expectation—continues to rise, public affairs and communication teams in the health space have never held a greater opportunity or responsibility to help their clients' deliver on their bottom lines by helping humankind weather this season of strife.


Kim Sammons is Executive Vice President, Advocacy Patient Engagement at GCI Health. Ryan Kuresman is Executive Vice President, Global Public Affairs and Health Policy Lead at GCI Health. Trey Watkins is Executive Vice President, Global Health and Corporate Responsibility at GCI Health.