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EF: What was the mission you were given when you took over your position, seven months ago?
HS: I have been with AbbVie for over thirteen years, and I have been very fortunate in that I have been responsible for different geographies and different business units, recently being appointed to South Africa and Region Africa. At around the time of my appointment in May of 2020, AbbVie finalized the acquisition of Allergan which has a broad portfolio in South Africa and Region Africa countries. With this acquisition we have expanded our footprint bringing together over 30 brands and leadership positions to diversify our product portfolio and pipeline assets, while we continue to invest in innovative science and continue to serve unmet medical needs of patients that rely upon us.
At AbbVie, we believe patients need access to quality and affordable medicines. Improving health outcomes for patients around the world is one of AbbVie’s corporate responsibility commitments and is integral to our core business strategy.
EF: How was the transition to working remotely and what have been the lessons learned from the pandemic?
HS: It has been a very interesting year to say the least. At AbbVie, we believe that our biggest and most important asset is our people and that is why we have a strong focus on culture in our organization that is principled on the value of diversity, equality, and inclusion. To that end, I believe that the pandemic has put a stronger focus on empathy and flexibility. From an empathy perspective, there is no doubt that we have become closer as a team as we had more opportunities to learn about each other’s families and our loved ones and the joys and challenges that we face on a personal level. Never before have we all faced the same challenge and the same risks in our lives, and I believe that gave us the collective will to navigate together this challenge and to grow much closer as a team. From the flexibility perspective, I can assure you that we haven’t had as many Zoom and Teams meetings as we had this past year and what we found is that in fact there may be much room for delivering efficiencies in the ways we work and operate, and I think that is something we want to continue to investigate and invest in to ensure we are more efficient and more agile in the post COVID periods. I am extremely proud of how the tone was set from the top of our organization that people’s safety and wellbeing is of paramount importance and that we as a company will show the flexibility needed for employees to feel they can get work done whilst ensuring they care for their families and loved ones. Face to Face interactions and team bonding will always be of paramount importance but learning new “virtual” ways on building that cohesiveness and cross-functional collaboration is of critical importance as well, but eventually returning to the workplace (whenever possible) to preserve and nurture our culture, and that cross-functional collaboration is a cornerstone of AbbVie’s high performance and results into a remarkable impact on patients.
EF: What will be new skill sets needed for the future?
HS: This pandemic has forced us in many ways to adapt and adopt to our new ways of working, using a multi-technology approach to reach our customers and our patients. It has also given us a different perspective on working remotely. I believe that we will need to understand better those approaches and how we can apply them in the post COVID period. As an example, how will we reach the right balance between remote working and physically being at the office? How will we take advantage of great technology platforms to amplify our in-field teams’ share of voice? What will our patients and customers want and desire in terms of interaction channels and how do we ensure we are ready for this evolution? All these are questions that we need to better understand moving forward.
EF: Tell us about your footprint in South Africa and in the African region.
HS: We are fortunate to have a very diverse portfolio and an extremely dedicated team of professionals that are committed to delivering on our promise to our patients. We have a broad eye care portfolio, with market leading brands in areas such as dry eye disease, retinopathy, and glaucoma which is the leading cause for blindness We have a neurology asset which leverages the therapeutic effect of targeted neurotoxin protein use in the treatment of spasticity and chronic migraine amongst others. We also have a market leading biologic that is used for autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn´s disease, ulcerative colitis, and Psoriasis, as well as specialty products in areas of anesthesia and infant respiratory Distress syndrome and we have recently launched a new product in oncology for CLL patients, so our footprint is quite strong and diverse in South Africa and across Region Africa countries.
EF: What is your personal definition of access and how can it be increased in South Africa?
HS: At AbbVie, we believe patients need access to quality and affordable medicines. Improving health outcomes for patients around the world is one of AbbVie’s corporate responsibility commitments and is integral to our core business strategy. We commit to target unmet needs to support patients and enhance access to healthcare. AbbVie is committed to the highest quality products for patients who use them.
We must work on proposals and value propositions for payers (Private and Public Sectors) to offer win-win solutions. If the RIGHT patient, gets access to the RIGHT medication, at the RIGHT time, our population will be healthier and eventually cost the healthcare system and the country less.
EF: As result of the pandemic there has been a more general awareness on health budget allocations and resources available per country. How can we keep momentum on the importance of healthcare resources moving forward?
HS: The pandemic has brought a more balanced focus on the pharmaceutical industry. From the beginning of this global crisis, the pharmaceutical world immediately went to work looking for solutions and ways to defeat the virus. This has brought renewed focus on the importance of scientific research and the expansive work done by the industry to find cures and advance health delivery across the world. AbbVie continues to invest on research and development (5.1 BN dollars in 2018) and is committed to finding treatments for diseases of unmet medical need. This is an example of how we believe we can make a difference in the health industry and ensure that we are playing our part in ensuring innovative medicines make their way to the hands of physicians and patients. This should give us a renewed incentive to partner with our key stakeholders to drive advocacy for better healthcare access for our populations.
EF: How is AbbVie´s clinical research footprint in South Africa looking?
HS: Our clinical research team is based at our office in Johannesburg and we have clinical research specialists across the country. We engage with different sectors and physicians to recruit patients for clinical trials, for example we have products coming up for Crohn´s disease and ulcerative colitis and we plan on recruiting patients from South Africa and other regional countries for these trials. This speaks to our commitment to ensure diversity of population in our clinical trials and thus wider data points across different populations. The other focus we have is our partnership with SAHPRA, the regulatory agency in South Africa. The reality is that it took on average four to five years longer for the same product to be approved in South Africa when it has already been approved in the US, Europe, and Japan. To have access to these medicines, we need earlier regulatory approval and to this end we continue to work with SAHPRA and their new reliance processes to help achieve earlier approvals.
EF: Coming from UK to South Africa what strikes you the most from a working perspective?
HS: I think that one key area is the disparity in terms of healthcare access across the population with only a fraction of the patients having access to private health insurance and thus the ability to afford access to innovative medicines that can make significant impact on patients’ lives. We must continue to work together to introduce changes in policy that will drive change in patient care across the entire population. South Africa is a complex but very attractive market and improving access would have a huge impact.
EF: What would you like 2020 and your tenure to be remembered for?
HS: I want 2020 to be associated with the word resilience. The pandemic has really tested us in ways like never before and I think despite the many challenges, we are a much better and stronger team today. I can’t say enough of how the team was able to put exceptional plans together to adapt to the new environment where we were needing to be 100% virtual across all internal and external stakeholders and to ensure that our patients continued receiving their medicines and our physicians and healthcare professionals received the support they needed through these difficult times. There is no doubt that our teams sacrificed a lot to achieve these goals and I can’t be more proud of them and I am extremely thankful to their efforts.
EF: Over this year what percentage of the decision-making would you say was tactic versus strategic?
HS: A significant portion I have to say was tactical, on subjects like the safety and deployment of our field force, when to bring back people to the office, how to divide the people in the office, how to work with our stakeholders, how to facilitate our ways of working virtually, the safety to travel and so forth. There were many decisions that we had to take but we knew what we wanted to accomplish: protect the safety and wellbeing of our employees and partner with our physicians and patients to give them all the support they need. And despite the difficult times, we still managed to launch(virtually) our new oncology product during the pandemic! This year’s tactics for me have been paramount and taught us a lot on how to keep up with the customers, with the employees, to engage with our teams. We will take a lot of the lessons learned from 2020 and apply to our five-year vision and ensure that we continue to evolve and grow as an organization.
EF: Is there any final message you would like to share?
HS: What I deeply believe to be true is the following:
- Just because we haven’t done it before doesn’t mean we can’t do it now. We must continue to evolve and grow and take the right steps to break barriers and to be the disruptive agent to drive real change.
- The Importance of Partnerships: We must be able to forge the right partnerships. We must ensure that we continue to foster the trust and build the confidence of our stakeholders in our value proposition as a company that continues to deliver innovative solutions for serious health issues. Having a healthy population is good for all parties, for the country, for the society and having access to good healthcare should no longer be viewed as a privilege for the few but the right for all.