NEW YORK - Pharmaceutical companies have an image problem. They now say they care more about it.
Pfizer collects more money from prescription drugs than any other company on the planet, with 2012 total revenue of $59 billion and net income of $14.6 billion. Finances are part of the dilemma the drugmaker tried to address Tuesday when it invited reporters to its headquarters here to listen to company leaders discuss improvements to research and development of vaccines. Such vaccines can save lives and prevent horrible diseases that can cripple children and ravage societies.
"Frankly, what we do, we believe, is important to society," Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Ian Read said in his opening remarks.
Before taking a few questions from reporters, Read continued to discuss the issue of image.
"There is a contract between the industry and society," Read said.
Patent rights, Read said by way of one example, might be based on innovative research, but they are bestowed upon companies by governments partly with the expectation that the holders of such rights will do right by the community.
"In the end, what we sell is confidence," Read said. "We sell that we've done the research, done the clinical trials, that the data is done to a very high standard and is believed. The trust in society on quality is important to us. This trust is not where it ought to be."
Some Pfizer employees involved in vaccines operate from Collegeville, Montgomery County.
This is not a great time for a for-profit industry reliant on sometimes-blind customer confidence to have a trust problem. Every day there is more discussion in America about reducing healthcare costs, though Wall Street and shareholders have no less desire for profits and steady dividends.
Multi-billion dollar financial penalties and criminal convictions, often tied to promoting drugs for unapproved purposes, don't inspire trust.
Drug industry leaders, including Pfizer officials on Tuesday, said the entrepreneurial spirit inherent in a for-profit enterprise leads to innovative medicine, which should also bring financial reward. When all of the pieces were added up and analyzed by Bloomberg News, Read's 2012 compensation was $25 million.
Industry leaders are also quick to say that pharmaceuticals are the most efficient of the healthcare sectors, represent only about 10 percent of the spending pie and greater adherence to medication plans by patients would curtail costlier hospitalizations. But the payers - public or private insurers in America or governments in much of the rest of the world - are looking at all sectors. Individuals - even if they smoke, fail to eat properly and don't exercise - are often more aware of drug costs if they pay co-pays at the pharmacy counter and face higher deductibles in their insurance plans.
"There is a perception gap," Read said of the image versus the great value of good medicine. "It is vital to close that gap if this industry is to enjoy the support of society."
Many developed nations already have greater price controls than the United States. Drug companies hoped that the expanding middle class populations in India and China would lead to greater use of medicine they produce. But China's recent crackdown on drug companies, notably GlaxoSmithKline, is seen by some industry analysts as one way of controlling costs. Meanwhile, India has been waging more public patent fights with brand-name drugmakers so cheaper generic medicine can be produced and sold there.
Read said if only the stronger U.S. patent laws are upheld, drug companies, taxpayers and insurers in the U.S. will be hurt.
"If you don't have good patent protection, then only one part of society ends up paying for innovation," Read said.
In the United States, there is a slow and shaky shift is to a different healthcare model. This move is toward a more holistic, patient-centered model that measure outcomes rather than a string of fees for services. But how those outcomes will be measured differently than in the past is an open question.
Susan Silbermann, president and general manager of Pfizer vaccines, said the company is trying to find ways to show more of the value it already delivers.
"We save lives," Silbermann said.
Though the price matters, vaccines that prevent horrible diseases or reduce infections that prolong expensive hospital stays would seem to be a cost-effective tool.
Emilio Emini, the senior vice president of vaccine research and development, lives in Montgomery County and works mostly from Collegeville, though he travels quite a bit. He has been working on vaccines for 30 years.
"It is always better," Emini said, "to prevent a disease than to treat a disease."
Pfizer's 2012 annual report, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, has several documents with separate links. A link to main page is here.