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Interview: A bright healthcare future

By Neil Trainis

PUBLISHED: July 31, 2017 | UPDATED: July 31, 2017

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Pharmacy Business editor Neil Trainis talks health with David Barnett, area general manager northern Europe at GSK Consumer Healthcare and president of the Proprietary Association of Great Britain…


Will drug research, development and innovation in the UK be harder post-Brexit?
If you look at the current climate it’s very hard to predict anything. What we do know though is if we work closely as an industry with the government, we can create the right environment and deal with the risks and opportunities.
I’m working very closely with the PAGB (Proprietary Association of Great Britain) for example. Overall, we will keep innovating because that’s where the future is for us and particularly for consumers.
And if you look at some of the recent innovations in this industry, they really do make an immense difference. If I look at something like Voltarol 12-hour, that makes a real difference to people’s lives. It means they can self-treat with something that will last all day for them.
So I think the answer is we’re working it through. We’re in that stage now where we’re working it through with the government, with the industry associations but the honest answer is that we will always innovate.

What about patients – in your view will Brexit make it harder for patients in the UK to access medicines?
I honestly think it’s about the evolution of the self-care agenda. If you look across the world, tighter budgets but rising healthcare costs and an ageing population. So, it’s one of those classic things where it’s a bit of a curve and I think it will really start accelerating now because all of the factors you expect to be driving self-care are just getting stronger and stronger. That’s why we’re here today and that’s where we see the future and we want to help pharmacy with the future.

If the UK leaves the European Medicines Agency pharmaceutical firms may regard it as less of a priority in which to market its drugs – (Europe’s resident population of 500 million people represents 25% of the world’s total drug market. Britain, if it left the EMA, would be just 3% of the global market.) Is that a concern?
As GSK, and as a broader industry, we want to work to keep the industry growing and serving patients’ needs. We want to work our way through it.

What kind of effect, if any, will Brexit will have on your role overseeing commercial operations across GSK Consumer Healthcare Northern Europe, (Great Britain, Ireland, Nordics and Benelux)?
What our consumers and shareholders expect is that we’re fully prepared for it. We’ve got to work through scenarios and make sure we can continue innovating and continue meeting consumers’ needs. The main impact would be working it through and understanding it.

OTC in pharmacy has not shown tremendous growth in recent years. In 2013 IRI reported total OTC sales had enjoyed significant growth for the first time since 2007. Why have community pharmacists arguably neglected OTC?
I don’t know if I agree that they’ve neglected. It’s a matter of focus. If you think in the last few years pharmacies have focused on services but I think for the future, it’s those classic longer term trends. They really need to focus on self-care and being an accessible point for consumers and patients.

Self-care is not a new concept, it has been around a quite a few years. Why are we not further down the road with that in terms of community pharmacy?
It’s not a new concept but it takes time to change consumer and patient habits and what we’ve got to do together is change the environment so that consumers and patients think about first going to the pharmacy.
Maybe to me, because I come from a marketing background, you’re all the time thinking about the consumer and the patient. Often the current habit is they would think about going to A&E or to a doctor first rather than pharmacy being the first port of call, so I think as an industry, that’s something we’ve got to change. And if you think about the work we’re investing behind the brands, that should help drive people into pharmacy and for people to understand there are conditions they can treat themselves.

So 10, 15 years down the line, you see self-care being at the forefront of community health?
Yes. I see it like that because that’s what everybody wants. The government wants that, pharmacy wants that and frankly, I guess in the end, the taxpayer wants that. The more we educate consumers the more they’ll understand this is the quickest and most convenient way for them to treat their minor ailments and equally to get further services in pharmacy.

Do consumers know much about self-care in your opinion?
In a sense that’s a job for us as manufacturers of branded medicines, to educate on both the conditions and the treatment and that the treatments are readily available. It’s a pure education role.

The utopia is for all community pharmacies to be the healthcare hubs of their local communities. But how is this possible when the government is cutting their funding?
I actually see it as very possible and I really see the opportunity because they’re geographically located where consumers and patients are and they’re well located across the country. They have trained people who understand the conditions and understand the right treatments. And they’re easily accessible at various times of the day. My main focus is on the opportunity there.

GSK has looked at ways of reducing the time and money it takes to produce new medicines using artificial intelligence. It recently sealed a $43 million deal with Exscientia which specialises in using AI in drug research by predicting how molecules will behave and how likely they are to produce an effective drug. Is this something you’ve taken an interest in?
You’ll often hear us talking about science at GSK and clearly, in the pharmaceutical part of GSK, that’s exactly the kind of things we need to be doing to adapt to new technologies and change the way things happen. But if you think about the science in the OTC medicines that we sell in consumer healthcare, we really want to be at the cutting edge of it. Science is at the heart of everything we do. I would see the example you’ve given as just part of where our heart and fervour is.

You took on your current role in August 2016. One year on how has it gone?
It’s one of focus around our power brands and really understanding consumer needs and also the needs of pharmacy. If I was giving myself a kind of school report after a year, I would say the focus has been on the power brands, the ones where we have the real science and can really make a difference and a focus on trying to expand on what makes consumers, patients and pharmacists need for the future.

What are your goals over the next 12 months?
I tend to think very long-term. I want to make sure that we keep investing behind the power brands and effectively bringing the science to life. And equally on the self-care agenda, it is a very long-term thing. This is my 16th year in the industry and I’m seeing the movement but I just want to keep accelerating it.