Read the Conversation

EF: What was Servier's role during the pandemic?

AB: Our role was twofold: 1) care of our employees, ensuring high-level safety, understanding and circulating pertinent information of what was going on and giving out perspective on the matter. We aimed to reassure and stay in close contact with our people on a remote basis. 2) Focus on our patients: we don't have drugs to treat or manage Covid-19; our products are for patients who suffer from hypertension and diabetes. We had to ensure continuity of supply to wholesalers, pharmacies and ultimately the patients. It was a challenging time getting our products into the country as the entire world was affected by the virus.

EF: Could you elaborate on your strategy to ensure continuity of supply? 

AB: Globally, we were sitting on high-level stock, both raw product and finished product, and we turned a lot of raw product into a finished product to supply the market. Because of the spike in demand, we started stockpiling to avoid a rupture in the supply chain; nevertheless, the group was very good at accelerating production and sending products to world affiliates to the extent we didn't suffer from any significant rupture in the supply chain. As diabetes and hypertension are risk factors of Covid-19, it was even more critical patients could access their treatments.

EF: What were the lessons learnt from managing through a pandemic remotely or otherwise? 

AB: It was about accepting the uncertainty and the fact that we were clueless about how things would pan out in the future. I appreciated the collective intelligence of my team, first on a remote basis and then back together at the office where it was easier to do brainstorming and decide on the best thing to do for patients and our business, deciding on ideas, strategy, actions, etc. It was most satisfactory and fulfilling to see the power of collective intelligence in our immediate results. A great team with engagement and commitment, working towards an objective they believe in can take on any challenge, coming up with ideas and solutions, creating miracles of collaboration in a way that can't be achieved by one person alone. 

EF: If you had to create a Master in Pandemic Administration which two courses would be mandatory? 

AB: Probably the first would be around organizing teams, brainstorming, on how one idea plus another idea can result in three new ideas for quality solutions. A second course linked to risk appetite, entrepreneurship and capability to identify and navigate opportunities. These opportunities can adapt and change the organization and its working system diagnosing new opportunities in a dynamic and uncertain environment. To some extent, this can be replicated in the day to day management of the business and its many moving parts: competitors, regulation, medical knowledge, etc. We live in a changing environment, so having a dynamic mindset of entrepreneurship is essential.

EF: Did you manage your corporate meetings with this entrepreneurial mindset, maybe having different teams discussing activities of each country to come up with the best strategies for Africa? 

AB: We had the best experience sharing at a group level, but with everybody up to their necks with Covid-19, the concrete situation in the field varied a lot from one country to another depending on if there were lockdowns or wave stages. Many ideas were only applicable to a specific local context with certain levels of limitation, so at the end of the day, it was about defining our local strategy and action plan to deal with each situation. 

EF: With diabetes as the potential next silent pandemic and people afraid to go to hospitals, how can we restore importance to non-communicable or chronic diseases in a communicable disease scenario?

AB: This premise is true for diabetes, for cancer and to some extent true for hypertension. When we were in the first wave, people thought the second wave would be not of Covid but around another non-communicable disease, but then we got a second, third and even fourth wave of Covid. Even so, non-communicable diseases are a big concern. We have made sure we have an open communication channel with health professionals and patients using traditional social media to inform them that Covid and hypertension or diabetes are not good combinations. Non-communicable diseases are here to stay and it's fundamental to continue to see a doctor, be treated and receive medication -the results of not doing so can be even worse than Covid. We also had many experts in the field, experts being vocal on television, radio and press explaining the existence of other diseases beyond Covid and the importance of treatment. We re-launched patient information, again and again, using repetition to reach as many people as possible.

EF: How did the therapeutic areas perform over the past year, was there a shift in your portfolio?

Chronic conditions continued to be diagnosed and treated last year at a high level. We observe, however, a trend towards stagnation in 2021. Unemployment and the deteriorating economic situation push patients out of health care coverage leading to poorer health management. 

EF: As a leader working many years in healthcare, what is your personal definition of access? 

AB: Access is ensuring that cost-effective medications and treatment reach all patients for their benefit. The crucial factors in access are the cost component, the product's efficacy, and that the right selection of the population should benefit.  When the treatment is expensive, it must have high effectiveness and we must define the population that must receive it to make the difference and impact the burden of disease. The main decider in South Africa seems to be the cost regardless of the product's efficacy and the consequence of said efficacy: additional life gain or working capabilities which has a beneficial effect on all the society. In my opinion, there should be a bigger emphasis on value which means cost-effectiveness.

EF: To what extent do you think the pandemic has shifted the skillset needed for employees in the future? 

AB: For many years, companies and the market have been trying to digitalize further the working system, the interactions and the environment, and it has been a struggle. Covid has accelerated the transition and has diminished people's resistance to working in a digital environment, eliminating a lot of potential and psychological barriers. We had been trying to achieve this shift for many years, and suddenly, thanks to Covid we have managed it. For the future, as digitalization becomes part of our lives, the skillset needed will involve digital skills and digital agility as it becomes part of every aspect of the business: finance, HR, marketing and medical areas. 

EF: How do you attract the younger generation to work in the healthcare sector over tech companies? How do we make the healthcare industry more alluring to attract young talent? 

AB: I don't see it as a competition or fighting -as an industry- to attract talent; I have never felt this was a concern or a barrier. I believe the healthcare sector globally is very vibrant with a considerable variety of functions, especially over the last eighteen months with a lot of innovation and possibilities. People who want to progress and develop their careers can go from one sub-sector to another, healthcare insurance, distribution, pharma companies, and medical devices. There is also the undeniable fact that our industry has a very fulfilling purpose: we help and support patients, a huge attraction for those who want to serve and help and are fulfilled knowing they can make a difference. 

EF: When you look back to this period in your professional career, what would you like your tenure to be remembered for? 

AB: Probably for having achieved objectives such as continuity of supply and serving patients during a very challenging time. Over the last eighteen months, we have developed activities locally, creating supporting structures for patients, their relatives and our colleagues strengthening the bond between us and allowing for more success in the future. 

January 2020
South Africa