Shrinking fences make better neighbors
In his 31 years of work at Helm Medical GmbH, Ed Oosterman estimates having spent 3,500 days away from home. Recently retired, Ed was responsible for visiting commercial partners, meeting hospital equipment providers, and interacting with patients. “The job took me from children’s oncology wards to women’s health projects,” Ed says. “And everywhere I went, I talked to people.”
Communication is crucial in health work, Ed believes, particularly in helping increase contraceptive access. In 2013, seven generic manufacturers came together with support from the Concept Foundation to form the RHSC’s Generic Manufacturers’ Caucus for Reproductive Health (GEMS). Helm was one of these seven founding members hailing from India, China, Indonesia, Germany, and Switzerland. “Very different countries, but we had many issues in common,” Ed says. “...And talking within the group brought these issues to the surface. We generics live in a different world from that of big pharma. We have different price margins and lower profile, and are often underrepresented in the reproductive health community. Coming together as GEMS has given our issues more visibility”.
Traditionally, manufacturers have stayed on one side of the fence and the rest of the reproductive health community on the other. Within the Coalition, we can lean on both sides, which means the fence is getting lower every day.
Ed also appreciates the fact that today, manufacturers exercise a role in the governance of the Coalition. The recently formed manufacturers’ seat on the Executive Committee will rotate between innovators and generic representatives. “Traditionally, manufacturers have stayed on one side of the fence and the rest of the reproductive health community on the other. Within the Coalition, we can lean on both sides, which means the fence is getting lower every day,” he says.
Ed recalls the quality issues that have plagued the industry over time. In the 1990s, “There were an awful lot of substandard and fake drugs,” he says. When we broke the product down into individual production, packaging, and active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) costs, only an under-dosage of the latter could have explained the ridiculously low prices,” he says. He has always been a vocal advocate for simplifying existing prequalification procedures in order to reduce such quality issues.
Not one to aspire toward what he calls “political correctness”, Ed says he calls a spade a spade. At one conference, he remembers listening to a speaker from a developing country, and raising his hand to ask, “...what are you doing about corruption in your country?” Ed recognizes that calling out the emperor’s new clothes may not be the best way to win new friends but he says “… things have to be brought out into the open, talked about, in order for solutions to be found.” He says a safe space like the Coalition is conducive to these conversations, where “...advocates and business people can meet and speak openly. We have to pull down the barriers – cultural, financial, and religious.”
Ed does not miss the relentless travel but retirement is certainly not on the cards, he says. “When I look at our work in contraception and access, I have two conflicting reactions,” he says. “We have achieved so much. We haven’t achieved nearly enough.”
The ability of women and men to have supplies they know are both safe and effective. Good sexual and reproductive health depends on ensuring the quality of the RH supplies bought and distributed, and equally important, unequivocal confidence in the quality of these supplies.