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All things Pharma

Pf Awards 2021 – responding to the pandemic

The introduction of a new Pf Awards category for 2021 – Responsive Company Strategy – gave insight into companies who specifically demonstrated a rapid, relevant and meaningful response to the COVID-19 pandemic throughout 2020.

With three judges spanning industry, NHS, and Public Health England, the category gave a unique opportunity to see the specific strategies that companies put in place to support the NHS and patients to the best of its ability during such difficult times.

Here, Chief Culture Officer at Star OUTiCO and category judge, Lucy O’Neill, shares why judging different responses from the nine companies in the category left her feeling privileged and proud of her industry.

Having been an avid supporter of Pf Awards for over 16 years, Star OUTiCO were entirely unsurprised by the Pf team’s ability to pivot and digitally transform the awards to reflect our new world and healthcare environment for 2021. In previous years, we had supported the Outstanding Performer category – the winner of winners – but this year it felt right to recognise the company that had demonstrated the strongest response to the challenge that COVID-19 has thrown at us as an industry.

Key criteria

The category was open to UK pharmaceutical and medical device companies, with a focus on how the company mobilised and organised its expertise and resource in order to effectively support the NHS and patients.

As judges we were looking for several key competencies, namely how well the company:

  • Identified the opportunity it felt well-placed/a responsibility to provide support for
  • Acted with appropriate speed, sensitivity and purpose
  • Delivered through effective teamwork, collaboration and/or partnership
  • Achieved impact with supporting the NHS and patients
  • Planned to build upon this work to increase customer value or use valuable lessons.

With just 25 minutes for each candidate’s presentation and five minutes for questions from the judges, there was no time to waste. My fellow judges were Hamish McAuley, Registrar in Respiratory Medicine in Leicester, and Pam Frost, Health Protection Practitioner at Public Health England.

What were the differences?

In many ways, judging the competition was challenging. It was very much like comparing apples and oranges given the stark variety in the types of companies that entered.

These entries included a Korean company newly established in the UK who were about to launch their brand on the eve of lockdown; an American biopharmaceutical company with a COVID therapeutic; a top five pharma company engaging social prescribing techniques through community link workers to support the socially isolated elderly; a dermatology company providing emollients to keep front-line staff from the significant issue of broken skin from using PPE, right through to one of the fastest growing generic pharma companies in the world.

The shape, size and type of company was hugely varied, but there were some real similarities in approach.

What themes did we see?

Sensing the need for space
Across the board, we saw huge respect for the fact that, in the early days, the best thing we could do to help was actually stay away from our customers as they assimilated the situation and let them focus on what they needed to.

This approach was clearly at odds with our modus operandi and threw us into a period of feeling helpless and without purpose. That period did not last long before the industry sprang into action and value creation.

Virtual engagement
Individuals, teams, business units, functions and affiliates began to work more collaboratively than ever before across boundaries (functionally and geographically), with clarity on the bigger picture.

IT systems were upgraded with the tools to support remote engagement capabilities and customer-facing teams were trained quickly, but robustly, on virtual selling. For some this was merely days, for others it was weeks or months, depending on where they were starting their digital journey from.

It was heartening to hear that so many companies actually saw an increase in their total engagement with healthcare professionals (HCPs) in 2020, although with a vastly different blend of activities than before. As we know, we have a collective responsibility to keep all channels to our customers open and a considered, professional approach to virtual engagement is critical to this. Some organisations took this to a new level, for example, incubating digital health solutions start-up companies in partnership with NHS test bed sites.

Service, support and education
By far the most consistent value creation we heard about was the delivery of educational webinars that brought national and international medical experts together with front-line colleagues to share new science and guidance. We heard too about comprehensive resource suites to support HCPs to navigate the new digital era and support virtual clinics, including evergreen webinars, infographics, e-books and consultation guides.

This is just a sample of the HCP feedback the companies shared:

‘I am hooked! Book me on all these presentations, I can watch them at work as well, thank you.’

‘Some superb meetings and conferences that you have organised, which we have got a lot out of.’

‘One of the best attended national meetings I’ve been involved with.’

‘You’ve helped me be a better doctor.’

‘Keeping us up to date despite difficult times is very important for our practice and for patients.’

Delivering an uninterrupted supply of medicines

We saw this dedication to patients throughout the pandemic in so many critical areas, ranging from oncology to HRT.

We heard how organisations helped navigate export bans, borders closing, and the serious logistical and management challenges around the supply of critical medicines. We saw examples of how pharma supported with programmes of in-depth literature scanning to build an exemplary understanding of the evolving clinical research base. This was translated into focused activities to ensure rapid provision of repurposed medicines for both trials and the clinical front line, followed by a COVID-19 Pharmacopeia that was shared with industry to ensure multiple producers were focusing on production on the medicines of greatest likely need.

No doubt about it, a critical success factor seems to have been the company’s ability to share best practice and knowledge across and beyond the organisation.

Values and culture

The topflight companies in the category shared one very common theme – exemplary leadership at all levels in the organisation. They were able to robustly describe the role their leaders took, that they were confident about showing and sharing their own vulnerabilities and acknowledge that they didn’t (indeed couldn’t), have all the answers.

Leading in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous), world saw leaders rise and fall. Those that rose all had one thing in common – you simply cannot overcommunicate in a crisis. Our top companies were undoubtedly strongest in the internal communications piece, increasing dramatically their content, channels, and methods of communication to ensure their workforce felt not only connected, but truly part of the fight.


What this has shown me is that pharma and medical devices companies respond well in a crisis, working well under pressure to adapt, innovate and evolve, especially with regards to collaboration and cross functional working. We saw consistent evidence of companies employing growth mindsets, failing fast and learning quickly to ensure customers and patients could rely on the industry to ‘get through this together’.

What a year to have lived through, and what better time to be part of the pharmaceutical and medical device industry playing its part in the solution?

When I look back on months and months of work days, full of Microsoft Teams calls, the Pf Awards Judging Day will most definitely stand out. It was an honour and a privilege to stand alongside a COVID HCP and Public Health England representative to see our industry shining so brightly during what has been, at times, a dark, challenging and profound era for us all.

A word from the other judges

Reflecting on his experience of judging the Most Responsive Company category Hamish McAuley, Registrar in Respiratory Medicine in Leicester said: “The breadth, ingenuity and genuine desire to support and facilitate the needs of patients, the NHS and healthcare staff demonstrated by the entries in the Most Responsive Company category of the Pf Awards was inspiring. Equally, the speed and unexpected ways in which teams adapted and collaborated, both within their organisations and between companies, sectors and countries showed the fantastic way that we can rise to challenges when they are presented.”

Pam Frost, Health Protection Practitioner at Public Health England said: “It was a real privilege to judge this category during what has been a challenging year for the whole country. It was inspiring to hear about the efforts of the companies who have supported the NHS behind the scenes enabling the NHS to continue to function and provide high quality care to all during the pandemic. The winner certainly went above and beyond and worked hard to take all their staff with them ramping up production in order to meet demand for essential medication, not just in the UK, but abroad as well.’

Relive the excitement of the night and catch up with the The Pf Awards 2021.

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Lucy O'Neill
Lucy O'Neill
Lucy O'Neill is Chief Culture Officer at Star OUTiCO


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