I met Greg Apostol (VP, Alkermes) two days after his sister died from lung cancer. Encouraged by her last words to him, in which she expressed her pride in him and his purpose-driven career, he proceeded to fulfill his commitment to present at eyeforpharma to talk about being patient focused. Where does such passion and purpose come from?
With a dad who fought at Hiroshima in WWII and a mother who had a long career as a teacher, Greg learned early about a life of service. And, as a hockey player in Europe earlier in life, he derived the habit of being a team player – working with others on a common purpose to make a difference in the world.
After hockey, he began serving other athletes through a medical device company that focused on braces and neuromuscular stimulators. Three pharma companies later, he is again on a team he loves, fighting to find a way to impact outcomes for patients. “It’s always been that way for me. It’s about helping the patient and the customer – building that partnership – to help create better patient outcomes together than any of us could do alone,” says Greg.
When the rest of the industry was still thinking about how to increase scripts, Greg was skating to where the puck was going – to patient centricity. “I looked around,” he explained, “It was at the height of the nuclear arms race to hire reps, and I saw the frustration it was causing HCPs. I realized also that HCPs weren’t the sole decision makers anymore. Then I had a compelling interaction with a chief medical officer with whom I built a unique friendship around hockey.”
That CMO helped Greg understand how complicated the business of healthcare was. Greg remembers him saying “Imagine the inefficiency of our healthcare system being translated to the airline industry. Planes would never get off the ground!” Greg was hooked on the need to find greater efficiency in healthcare. He switched his enrollment in an MBA to a Masters in Health Systems and then a Master Certificate in Lean Enterprise Solutions. He wanted to help his company build efficiency into customer propositions and marry what was important to the customer, the patient and the company. It went far beyond the pill, he realized, to understanding the patient journey and the customer’s work flow. How could his products help make the patient and customer journey more efficient and effective? He realized he needed to build bridges with customers, since no one could solve the problems alone. For Greg, the magic to creating those collaborations was his authentic patient focus. His education was helping him understand what was driving the healthcare decisions at the C-suite level.
Greg was building an expertise that many pharma companies could use. But he was looking for something special. He admits that he’s worked in big pharma with $65 billion in sales and been dissatisfied with the work environment. It’s not about the size of the budget but about finding a good fit – where your personal aspirations and expertise fit the mission of the company. “When I was young and naïve it was just about getting a job. As I get older, I have the luxury of determining where I work. I’ve chosen to work at Alkermes,” explains Greg. They were looking to put into place a new strategic direction for their account management and reimbursement team. Greg knew he had the expertise for this, but it was important for Greg that they had the culture that mattered to him. Alkermes felt right to him. “It makes me feel youthful and excited to come to work. We have a shared sense of purpose.”
Greg says that many people at Alkermes have a personal connection to serious mental illness or alcohol or opioid dependence. “I simply remind my team how much I appreciate them for being here. Together we celebrate patient success stories. Our medicines provide treatment options for patient populations are often stigmatized or overlooked. At Alkermes, we give them a voice. I feel like together we can accomplish anything!”
He says that value is not just about what’s in it for the manufacturer or provider, it’s first about what’s in it for the patient. The overall goal is greater alignment on working together to help solve problems for patients. “We work on complex and underappreciated disease states for both schizophrenia and opioid dependence, where there are many unmet needs.” He says that in R&D, sales, marketing, policy, they’re all working toward the end result for the patient.
Schizophrenia and OUD are complex treatment systems that are not designed to adequately support patients. Greg says, “It’s critical that we continue put the patient at the center of decision making. Creating access to medicines in this area is challenging, but we see this as an opportunity. In building our business, we are building specialized commercial capabilities to enable us to navigate within the complex treatment systems that define these diseases. We are one of the few companies that are designed to work in these complex systems.”
As someone who has been in the industry for more than 20 years and works closely with stakeholders across the health care continuum, it’s clear that we have an opportunity to drive impact that changes lives, communities and, most importantly, patient outcomes.”
It’s that kind of attitude – on a company level and on a personal level, from people like Greg – that will provide the motivation to greatly expand the populations who benefit from medical advances.
Author, Engage Rx: The 3 Keys to Patient-focused Growth
Co–founder, The Aurora Project
Jill, HBa, MAdEd, is a keynote speaker, author and thought leader who has authored two books on Influencing in patient-focused ways and co-founded The Aurora Project, a global patient-centricity group. She also serves as Associate Editor of Healthcare Sales & Marketing.Jill.Donahue@excellerate.ca