When your CEO puts shareholders first


  • Pharma CEOs, because of compensation, put shareholders first at the expense of patients.
  • AbbVie’s CEO is compensated based on Humira’s patent protection.
  • Wall Street doesn’t really understand the drug development process and puts too much emphasis on short term profits.
  • Some forward-thinking CEOs are trying to implement change within their organizations but they can’t do it alone.

I was interviewed by a leading business publication yesterday and one of the reporter’s key questions was “in your opinion why is the pharma industry so mistrusted by people?”. My answer was simple “Wall Street”.

Pharma has become big business and the only thing big business cares about is the balance sheet. When a pharma CEO is compensated because he has stopped their top drug from going generic because of technical legalities something is really wrong.

When I started working in pharma twenty tears ago the talk, at conferences and within the company, was about patients. Today the talk is about ROI, sales numbers and doing what is necessary to hit numbers.

I keep asking myself how people at companies like Gilead and AbbVie feel when their companies are posters for everything that’s wrong with pharma. Does a paycheck really compensate for a conscience?

I have worked with some people who are trying to change the status quo but as I reviewed my industry contacts I realized that over 70% of them have left the industry. It wasn’t the money that made them leave it was a culture of back-to-back meetings and the focus on sales above patients.

Some are trying to implement change. GSK is trying to reshape its organizational structure to better compete. Novartis is offering free insulin to people who can’t afford it but for every good act, there are ten bad ones.

Pharma product websites are often a stop in the journey to collect health information but as I have heard many times in research pharma websites fail to deliver on the needs of online health seekers. Are agencies to blame? Partly but the biggest blame goes to budgets that don’t allow for the development of a great health website.

A digital VP who was hired over a year ago to transform his company to an online powerhouse told me that this was the toughest job he has ever had and that they move at a really slow pace. Needless to say, he is thinking of going back to CPGs where, as he said: “get things done”.

I guess I’m different because there isn’t any way I could collect tens of millions of dollars in compensation knowing that my industry’s reputation is in the toilet and that almost 30% of patients can’t afford their medications.

What would Mr. Merck say if he were to see our industry now? Would he still believe that delivering great medicines at a fair price will result in a good business or would be worship investors and Wall Street?