In the lead-up to the 2021 Shared Value Leadership Summit on November 8-10, we had the opportunity to interview Dr. Julie Gerberding, Chief Patient Officer at Merck. On November 9 Dr. Gerberding will be in conversation with Temie Giwa-Tubosun, Founder & CEO of LifeBank as they explore access to medicine and the role of the private sector in driving equitable solutions to global healthcare challenges, particularly in resource-limited settings.
Shared Value Initiative: Your title is Executive Vice President and Chief Patient Officer. What are your responsibilities and why did Merck create that role?
Dr. Julie Gerberding: Patients are the reason Merck exists and each of us is motivated by a strong personal commitment to our purpose. The Chief Patient Officer is a member of the corporate executive team and has the responsibility to ensure that commitment is reflected across the entire spectrum of our corporate activities. We focus on four main priorities: 1) learning from patient insights, 2) improving the patient experience, 3) improving affordable access and uptake of medicines and vaccines, and 4) advocating for policies that align with the interests of patients and their caregivers.
SVI: Merck has a long history of working toward more equitable health-related outcomes. What has changed over the years that is creating both opportunities and challenges for the healthcare industry?
JG: On the one hand, health disparities are increasing in many countries around the world, and underlying inequities in the social determinants of health are a major driver of the gap. On the other hand, biopharmaceutical scientific advances offer the potential for innovative medicines and vaccines that can truly prevent illnesses, reduce their severity, or even cure them. The challenge is ensuring that the best solutions get to the people who need them the most and that these people trust them enough to take them. The current pandemic illustrates these challenges, and hopefully what we learn will help us improve health equity over the long run.
We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. – George Merck, Founder
SVI: You were CDC Director under President George W. Bush and led the CDC in responding to HIV/AIDS, SARS, West Nile Virus, and H5N1 avian influenza. What have you learned from Covid-19, and how do we better prepare for the next pandemic?
JG: Three key lessons learned:
- Biosecurity is a national and global security imperative, and we are woefully underprepared, especially in the least developed areas of the world and among the people who experience the worst baseline health disparities.
- Science is on our side, and the entire biopharmaceutical ecosystem — academia, non-profit, government, and the private sector — will step up to provide innovative countermeasures in times of crisis; and with the right strategy and investment, will do more to improve advance preparation,
- But trust is fragile and in short supply, and without it, even the most sophisticated tools will not be able to prevent unnecessary death and suffering.
SVI: Merck has helped tackle some of our most urgent health challenges, including diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and cancer. Over the years, Merck has also prioritized maternal health and that commitment has deepened with Covid-19. Why did Merck choose to focus on this issue? What are the other emerging urgent health challenges you are anticipating in the coming years?
JG: Globally, every two minutes, a woman dies from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. Most of these deaths are preventable when women have access to modern contraception and quality maternal health care before, during, and after childbirth. When we invest in maternal health, we help more women survive pregnancy and childbirth. When that happens, newborns are more likely to survive, children are more likely to stay in school, women are able to make invaluable contributions to their communities and the workforce, health systems are stronger, and nations’ economies grow.
Since 2011, we have prioritized using Merck’s scientific and business expertise to help improve maternal health outcomes in many countries around the world. Our Merck for Mothers platform has served as a pillar of our company’s ongoing commitment to helping solve important global health challenges and building partnerships to sustainably improve health and wellbeing.
SVI: Merck has articulated four Access to Health Principles that guide much of your work. Can you tell us about those principles: what they prioritize, whether those principles have evolved over time, and how Merck uses the principles to maintain a dual focus on profit and purpose?
JG: The words of our founder George Merck express best how we approach our business: “We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear.”
Merck’s Access to Health Guiding Principles serve a dual purpose: an internal guide for how we continue to sustain this approach to our business and an external tool to articulate our access strategies and priorities to our stakeholders.
Our approach to access is embedded across our operations and span four key areas: 1) discovery and invention, 2) availability and uptake, 3) affordability, and 4) strengthening systems and addressing inequity. In 2020, our products and pipeline targeted 88 percent of the top 20 global burdens of disease. Our principles also include our commitments to ensuring a reliable, safe global supply of quality medicines and vaccines and to developing, testing, and implementing innovative solutions that address barriers to access and affordability.
When our Access to Health Guiding Principles were first launched in 2010, we recognized the need to continuously measure, learn, and update our approaches. The principles were refreshed in 2020 and updated again in 2021. We remain committed to sharing our progress through public reporting of key performance indicators associated with each principle.