Read the Conversation

EF: 2020 was the year of diagnostics, 2021 the year of vaccines, what will 2022 be the year of?

HS: 2022 is about delivering a culture that understands what motivates people and what keeps them going. In a dire situation, people have a strong reflection on what is important and what is critical, and they also begin to think about their options from a professional perspective. A good example of this culture is hybrid working, which consists of 3 working days in the office and 2 days working remotely, and I am very proud to say that, not only in South Africa but globally as well, Abbvie has adapted the hybrid model. The Hybrid model can also be applied not just for now but also in the future when you continue to track talent with the younger generations. I believe that the second aspect of 2022 is about doing things differently. We have to do things efficiently, we have to think of how we interact with our customers and our stakeholders, it cannot only be face to face. We also need to find what technology we can embed and what other things we can do to communicate with our stakeholders. It is critical that we learn that lesson and that we put investment in terms of how it makes us competitive post-COVID-19.

The final factor is how we frame what we are doing and how that relates to our employees. What we’re trying to do is always think of the collective ambition and goal which creates a sense of unity and oneness together. We created a vision, in which together we create hope for patients across African continents. It is those types of post-COVID-19 lessons that I t this year is going to be about.

EF: Can you elaborate more on AbbVie’s adaptation to the hybrid model?

HS: We have adopted a flexible model. Whenever we hit a wave, everybody went back remotely full time, and we were able to do it. We brought in a certain percentage of employees every day so that they can interact. The hybrid is the result of many months and a couple of years of understanding what works and what does not work. It creates enough flexibility for people to feel that it is a new way of working, but at the same time you do not miss out on the human element. Not seeing your colleagues results in the loss of the social aspect, you miss the soft side of interacting and working, and the hybrid allows you to do both which are critical.

We are making sure that the technology that we use and invest in allows us to be visible to our customers, not only face to face. For example, we have now launched 2 products, and we have set up a couple of lunch meetings that were completely virtual. It is something that is technological. I was recently in Cape Town where we launched in South Africa a new product for immunology, and we were connected to 3 different cities, live from each city but connected through technology with all the doctors and physicians so you don’t have to fly everybody in and then miss on having people in their own city conveniently. These are aspects that are now accepted by people, by stakeholders, because of post-COVID-19 prioritization, meaning that you do not miss opportunities to engage but also you do it in a very smart and efficient way. There are many examples that we try to explore and understand what will work for our customers and how we can leverage the learnings that we had.

People are motivated, connected and understand the collective purpose. The numbers will come and exceed. This is what we have been trying to do, to give all the resources for our teams and I think this post-COVID-19 and the flexibility and the agility that we have been able to showcase with our employees. We have been able to leverage the fatigue that many of our stakeholders have had for the last 2 years and be able to wisely and effectively interact with our stakeholders and continue to propose that our drugs have a high-value proposition.

EF: What can the industry in South Africa do to get patients back to care?

HS: Patients not attending care routines was a problem that we saw across the globe, including first world countries. It was a huge pressure on the system from a pandemic perspective that nobody could have even planned for. It brought non-COVID-19 patients to wait in line to wait for access to care. One of the things that we try to do is to see how we can leverage a patient visit for COVID-19, to also look for other things. What we’ve learned is, how to get involved in making sure that we re-identify patients back to care. What sort of role do we have to bring patients back to their physician? One of the things we have implemented is remote consulting, where you facilitate patients seeing their doctors but not necessarily being present. We try to understand the pressure on the system and at the same time make sure that the patients are not missing the care that they need. This is reactivating the patient care, reactivating the patients back to the clinics. There are numerous smart post-COVID-19 ways of working that I believe in the future will pay dividends in terms of patient care.

EF: In relation to National Health Insurance, is this level of healthcare provision in South Africa the future?

HS: In South Africa, AbbVie cater for the private market in tier 1. Part of Abbvie’s mission is widening access for patients and a point of discussion with insurance providers such as Discovery is based on going from tier 1 to Tier 2 or 3. On a systematic level, this can be achieved by improving access and diagnosis whilst leveraging some sort of national system that can provide care to patients who do not have that opportunity right now. We still have a long journey but we have made a start on the right path.  
Alongside the Tier expansion, we are looking at alternative reimbursement mechanisms to make medicines more affordable and accessible for patients. We’re also looking at ways where we can expand access to governments, but the work that we’ve done with ATC (access to care) that we have for HIV is also decimating Abbvie’s commitment across Africa. This is a non-profit program that we have been committing to for the past 10+ years, providing well-needed HIV medicine in South Africa and across Africa and that never stopped during COVID-19. It was a challenge to try and manoeuvre some of the supplies, but I am proud of what the team has done in terms of ensuring that no patient is left behind. These are great examples of where we can continue to expand and work with governments, whether it's avoiding price agreements or access agreements. We want to be part of NHI discussions as well, and ensure it is a specific infrastructure. What I see as the most prominent regarding what we can do to play our part in the short and medium term is to ensure that we widen the access and provide innovative ways to widen this access. I believe that AbbVie has been a solid partner at a leadership level.
From an infrastructure perspective, we know that there is a significant disparity. South Africa has tremendous examples of highly recognized institutions that can cater to top care and can compete with major countries, but adequate provision is not available for the population at large. The level of discussion regarding the National Health Insurance in South Africa is due to these challenges.

EF: Regarding the maintenance of workplace culture, what advice would you give to other executives on leadership and employee engagement in the new age of work?

HS: First and foremost, it is an evolving picture in terms of culture, you never have a stagnant culture. We set up what we call culture crusaders, these are a group of employees who volunteer to be cultural ambassadors for our company and we interact with them at a management level and at a leadership level to ensure that the priority that we want to focus on for the year is implemented through this group. The second is to keep the finger on the pulse which is having small meetings with a diverse group of people. Gathering data on what works best and what does not, all while having human interaction which is very vital for a good workplace to excel. We just make sure that we amplify our employee’s voices because a great place to work is when an employee’s voice is heard and in making sure that there are opportunities for them.  

EF: 90 percent of multinational companies have South Africa as their regional headquarters. What example does South Africa give to the rest of the world as a healthcare hub?

HS: What South Africa provides is a top talent and access to a considerable number of technologies. When you look at standards of care and standards of treatment South Africa is far ahead in terms of diagnosis and patient care. I believe that it is a very attractive market. The government is also very eager to attract and bring in multinational companies, meaning that there is also that partnership that you can rely on from a government perspective in helping to ensure a setup shop in South Africa. From our perspective, we are here to stay and that is why we also have our clinical trial setup here. We have a QA lab as part of our organization. We are very invested in today and the future of South Africa.

EF: What would you like to celebrate at the end of this year?

HS: We have to celebrate our collective resilience. Having to work remotely for 2 years, we came through together as an organization so there was excitement in seeing everybody in the same room talking about the same priorities and really celebrating successes. For me, it is all about resilience and determination with a bigger purpose. The future is bright, and despite doing things differently, we are still committed to the same purpose which is to make an impact on patients’ lives and that’s what we want to celebrate.

May 2022
South Africa