Read the Conversation
EF: What have the last 12 months been like for you?
IW: The last year has been exceedingly unpredictable, with our plans changing week to week. As a leader of an organization in the health industry people looked to me for answers to deal with the unprecedented situation so it was important to be a calm, informed leader and engage with our people. My internal visibility -even though virtual- was much higher than other years, we spent many hours speaking with our key customers in the industry trying to understand the situation because it was so easy to get it wrong and we needed to understand the present needs of the customer and prioritize correctly. New leadership qualities are called for and in 2021 it will be critical to be flexible in our responses. One of last year’s learnings was that while having a meeting with a room full of people is not easy, it is a situation we are all familiar with, but to speak to 300 people scattered all over the continent is a very different experience so it has been critical to learn new skills. We must be a reliable and credible institution with the capacity of resolving any situation that could arise, even simple ones like for example finding swabs for Covid-19 at very short notice and sending them in the back of an ambulance to the Free State where there has been an outbreak. This gives us visibility, credibility and respect across the country not to mention validation for doing what is right and it will stand up as our legacy. We have also learnt to engage with customers that need us when face to face meetings are no longer possible so we have had to reimagine ourselves as an organization in a relatively short period of time and in spite of no offices being open in Africa in months we have still managed a continuity plan and engaged with our teams through a digital platform. Having a contingency plan has been absolutely critical to our success. We held virtual product launches of our biopsy needles with a group of technicians from South Africa, Italy, USA India and Dubai on one call listening to specialists – a presenter from Italy and a South African specialist- all engaging over different time zones, investing in technology to make it possible. This set the tone for all the organizations to be innovative in how we engage. Summarizing, calm leadership, innovative engagement and being seen as a capable company in healthcare would be three critical attributes that in my opinion make a difference, as well as not getting stuck when you are surprised so one can concentrate on solutions. This year has given us many pain points but some very reflective highlights as the healthcare sector has worked to help others with a high level of purpose.
EF: How was BD´s transition during the pandemic, learning new skills and managing remotely? How have you worked with your teams across Africa?
IW: As part of our new way of leading, we identified a way to engage with associates that were isolated due to the lockdown and we have shared a lot of news in terms of what is going on, showing our people what we are doing gave people comfort especially during lock down and isolation. We created a flexible working environment recognizing that people are balancing many balls, some have a study to work in but others worked out of a bedroom so it was important to create an environment where everybody could work. Giving people the tools to engage with others from their homes was key while still being able to come across as a professional organization all made possible with digital tools. The leadership team had patch-point meetings giving a voice to all, BD´s multifaceted approach is about having honest communication and includes multiple tools, multiple forums and employment support programs so all could reach out for help. This has been an a-typical period, where HIV and TB patients have not been going to clinics so we were not selling diagnostic kits for example in spite of this our associates across Africa still earned some substantial bonuses. All our associates -each one of the sales reps- got at least 50% of their incentives we made this commitment quite early on redirecting the spending we saved on from the traveling expenses -which came to a full stop- and I have countless thank you emails for our proactive action in this respect. From a salary point of view our people have not suffered an impact and knowing their jobs are secure has created a huge amount of goodwill for us among the associates.
EF: How has BD´s overall business performance for bio-science and medical devices been over this last year in the region?
IW: In some markets HIV patients have not been going to the HIV clinics and the same happened with TB patients, These are clinical areas where we have a high level of focus . But one of the benefits of being part of a company like BD is the scope of the portfolio and from the innovation point we were quickly able to respond to the COVID challenges by introducing new a diagnostics test with the ability to manufacture to scale . Currently we support Covid 19 vaccine trials in South Africa with our molecular test platforms and because our portfolio is quite broad, even with depressed areas we have managed our spending and revenue hits quite well as we are not single business dependents. Looking for a health impact in areas such as chronic diseases or prostate cancer in excess of 2000 patients with prostate cancer were treated with BD’s brachytherapy technology and this only happened because we ere able to come up with a unique solution to barriers such as the fact that there were no flights from the US at one point in time. We focused on patient care areas, on the immunization space, supporting COVID-19 in terms of infection prevention and control to reduce infection in the environment. We were able to work to find the solutions to health needs arising from Covid-19 while still having impact in other areas. It was in our benefit having a corporate diversified portfolio which allowed us to do this and we have had a fantastic start to our first quarter of the year. Due to our mixed approach of personnel safety first, employee well-being and flexibility plus our portfolio we have been able to address multiple areas and set ourselves apart and I believe results will follow. Employees are at the center of our business continuity as is using employee centricity to get to patient centricity and growth.
EF: What are your expectations for 2021?
IW: We have high expectations for 2021, as a company we must be motivated in crisis, providing new tools to navigate these difficult times. Probably being a leading company in infectious diseases is key, HIV and TB are BD´s biggest revenue and Covid´s worse affected patients are those who have diabetes and cardiovascular health issues. The risk factor is higher for a patient with a non-communicable disease and in this continent the patients tend to be impacted by TB and HIV, but we need to look at health in a holistic manner and the emerging and growing burden of disease is cancer and our portfolio does address diseases across that area. Of the 8 business units we have 6 or 7 units include oncological quality solutions all the way through chemotherapy preparations, diagnostic treatments for women´s health and cancer, and other therapeutic options and this strengthens our outlook on the burden of health across Africa. We have invested time to understand our company better in this time of crisis working with customers across the healthcare sector and in order to sell a product we must understand the needs and the strategic focus area of labs, hospitals and even health ministries. These concerns were managed through non-commercial discussions. It is clear we have the tools, capabilities and the portfolio to support the needs and we have worked on our organizational capabilities to increase efficiencies and visibility, reduce hospital stays and deliver medications in a safe and more efficient manner -all very exciting to do. We have invested in our customers with a better understanding of where they want to go, putting us in a great position to invest in our capabilities to be better as we go forward.
EF: Have you seen a big shift on the South African client base? Has there been a change in the dynamic for BD customers?
IW: We are working on a road map going forward, I haven’t traveled since February 2020 and my last trip was through Nigeria, Ghana, Mozambique, Botswana, Tanzania and Kenya looking at the status of health in those countries and where it is going. I did see a shift in dynamics across Africa with more privately funded healthcare and access. In Nigeria I visited a small hospital unit with more tech than in a hospital down the road, they have invested in MRI, CTC scan, but patients still fly from Lagos to London for treatment as we have the clinical skills but we don’t have the capacity so patients can’t get access even if things are faster than a couple of years ago. Kenya has gone from 5 years ago having 3 dialysis units to 43 or 47 units. With the focus around infectious diseases non-communicable diseases are becoming the real focal point but sadly in some parts of Africa a patient comes in with a gangrenous foot because they were not diagnosed as a diabetic 10 years ago. By the time a patient gets diagnosed of cervical cancer 6 out of 10 –or more- patients will be dead, whereas in South Africa because of its screening program patients are diagnosed early and treated. Africa historically does not have screening programs but since 12 months ago they are options that are being looked at for example Lagos now has radiotherapy options. Things are nowhere near where they need to be but there is a greater focus now on prolonging survival with the development of cancer guidelines and implementing diagnostic and treatment programs s and this is hugely positive in terms of patient outcomes in Africa. We have the capabilities and the technology to reach across these countries as well as the clinical mindset for development. We are on a healthcare journey that is changing and which is increasingly encouraging for both private and public sectors.
EF: Looking back at this period, what would you like to be remembered for?
IW: I would like to be remembered as a key part of this driving change journey. In Africa the public sector is very skeptical of the private sector. That both sectors have had face to face conversations on what the healthcare sector needs are is a huge step toward breaking down the existing skepticism to work together to drive optimum healthcare and access. These conversations have only happened due to COVID-19 but they will accelerate getting better access for more people in the country and I want to be part of that journey. Last week we had a meeting with the BD European president with the participation of my team and a lot of the discussions were not on performance but on the South African Healthcare sector and the effect of innovative technology currently present in a particular hospital and about a public-private partnership in which we have invested.
This public private partnership entailed working with UCT’s Clinical Skills Centre and Groote Schuur hospital to create a Safety in Health simulation center on one of the wards in Groote Schuur hospital where medical students and other healthcare professionals could be trained on a range of medical skills and safety techniques. When Covid-19 hit South Africa this ward became a Covid-19 ward because it had the necessary facilities and best practice techniques necessary for infection prevention and control equivalent to those in a private sector hospital.
All these sort of things are for me part of the journey that will help change the face of healthcare in the country and the region and will improve access which is very important. The crisis has been a catalyzer of change for Africa and Covid exposed disparity and the need to improve access to a whole new level.