As children, we were all taught the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But as adults, we all know that words can hurt and, more importantly, that semantics do matter. I was reminded of the latter on two occasions recently.
The first time was when I purchased a book that I had heard a lot about but hadn’t made time to read — Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. I was only 58 pages in when I had an epiphany that caused me to scrawl some notes about patient-centricity in the margin.
Gawande was writing about Felix Silverstone, M.D., a geriatrician whose life’s work had focused on the management of aging. At age 82 he had to retire to care for his wife, Bella, whose health was in decline. The couple moved to a retirement community and made out pretty well for a while. But as Felix entered his 90s and Bella’s care became more than he was capable of handling, she was soon moved to the nursing home floor. Although only one floor away from their apartment, the move proved significant — and not for the better. Silverstone and his wife soon found the efforts of the ever-present nursing home staff to be exasperating. “Some tended to Bella more as a patient than as a person,” Gawande wrote. And that was when it hit me. Do patients want to be treated as patients, or do they want to be treated as a person? I argue for the latter and believe companies that have been overly focused on becoming patient-centric and institutions that have shunned the term “personalized medicine” in favor of “precision medicine” have missed the boat — semantically speaking. Because being labelled as a patient signifies something being amiss. And while a person most likely wants the delivery of their care to be as precise as possible, doing so in a manner that fails to address their needs as a human being just doesn’t sound all that patient-centric to me.
I was reminded again about the issue of semantics when I was researching my story (p. 16) on Sophie Kornowski-Bonnet, head of Roche partnering. As far as I can tell, she’s the only executive leadership team member of a top 10 Big Biopharma with a title that includes the word “partnering.” I found that surprising since partnering seems to be one of the most popular business strategies in biopharma today. In fact, not one of the top 10 best-selling drugs for 2016 was developed by the company now benefitting from its sales; they all came from a partner company. Now to be fair, Sanofi and Amgen each have executives with responsibilities for “business development,” but semantically speaking, that term doesn’t connote the same feeling as partnering. I’m guessing that as companies become more reliant on external innovation to fill their pipelines, the ones that will succeed may be those that put more emphasis on the partnering function.