8 Takeaways From #JPM18

A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

While 2018 was not the year of big deals at the J.P. Morgan Annual Healthcare Conference (JPM), there was an upbeat vibe among attending healthcare companies. Pharma, biotech and life sciences leaders feel good about the industry’s progress as transformative medicines are emerging from development into pipelines. Device and technology companies debuted new products and advances. And health systems touted improvements in delivery models. And, not surprisingly, patients are “at the center” and the mission for all.

In the Edelman/Muck Rack pre-JPM survey of reporters, we found 55 percent of reporters value meeting with execs at the meeting and 51 percent value building relationships beyond reporting from the meeting. This year, reporters attending the gathering commented that engaging with the leaders and assessing their passion and ability to tell the company story — providing a sense of their authenticity — was a key reason to join in the annual scrum on and around Union Square.

Here are 8 observations:

  1. Investor meetings make or break: Pharma/biotech attendees said investors meetings were “positive,” “really productive” and “enthused.” However, some companies faced questioning about long-term revenue and the need for more and/or bigger deals. One unfortunately sloppy data announcement cratered a stock and led to questions from reporters about “how the heck does something like that happen?”
  1. Drug pricing in the background: Pricing was discussed but did not turn into a major headline generator, though novel performance-based contracting models will be watched in the coming year as new cell and gene therapies reach patients. All the same, while those inside the industry may be less worried, a raised-hands vote during one session at an event adjacent to JPM on how many had heard from friends and family about the problem of drug prices showed that much work remains in convincing consumers and those outside the industry bubble. 
  1. Patient- and consumer-centricity: Heard from companies ranging from early-stage biotechs all the way to health systems: Consumers are increasingly important from building brands to creating disease communities to controlling healthcare decisions.
  1. Immunity-everything: Immunity (including a lot of immuno-oncology) and CNS were strong currents of conversations, though persistent failures and a recent big pharma withdrawal from Alzheimer’s Disease reflected a negative note. Some are continuing to focus on homegrown development, others are aligned with academic medical centers, plenty are doing deals — with the ever-present theme of how to improve R&D productivity appearing as a steady drumbeat. More collaborations are expected with big pharma and biotech, especially the continued licensing of emerging medicines from smaller biotech companies by global biopharmas.
  1. Tax reform celebrated, cautiously: Everyone was feeling good about taxes, though many could not (or would not) explain why. The universal sentiment was that tax reform would be good for the industry, with some execs talking about new access to company cash and freedom from border restrictions when making capital investments. Some plan for the same but more: No changes to capital allocations. Still, some are watching whether lower tax rates will spur M&As.  
  1. Largely quiet on US healthcare reform: While dominant among some of the presenting health systems still grappling with the shift to value-based care, there was virtually no reference by pharma and biotech execs to US healthcare reform, changes to access in the US or restricted access in other markets. Diagnostics companies did raise concern about Medicare reimbursement cuts. Personalized medicine was touted for its efforts to make healthcare delivery smarter with better outcomes. More of the gene-testing companies are continuing that walk from research to clinical applications. 
  1. “Efficiency” in operations: In health systems, pharma and biotech, this was noted as an answer to some growth and revenue questions. Across a number of companies and organizations, paths for increased focus and reorganizations/restructuring were the company performance enhancers. Specific to healthcare systems, it is not yet a single approach. Some are scaling through mergers while others, especially academic centers, are pursing branded alliances whereby the more specialized care from community hospitals lands in the academic setting.
  1. The Michaels: Finally, gender disparity among top execs presenting at JPM was a viral topic care of a STAT News survey of presenter names that found that men named Michael outnumbered all of the women included on the conference agenda. Not surprisingly, it was also near the top ranked societal issue reporters identified in our survey as a place for the industry to take a stand in 2018, coming in second only to environmental issues.

For the coming year: Companies in all industries are being tasked to contribute to society – and prove they are doing it. Healthcare has an urgency to demonstrate its value and impact on human lives, both with the core business and beyond the medicines, labs, and clinics. Per our pre-JPM survey, journalists agreed. It is time to stand up.

Lynn Hanessian is client strategist, Health, Chicago.

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