Putting the patient at the heart of their work

“What we try to do is add value for patients that need our medicines and services, to contribute to the healthcare system of the Netherlands and to contribute to society as a whole,” explains global pharmaceutical firm AbbVie’s General Manager in the Netherlands, Lennaert Rijken, as I amsterdam speaks to him from his Hoofddorp office.

As statements go, it might not be exactly what you would expect to hear from the head of a pharmaceutical company. Why? Because it’s fair to say that the industry doesn’t always have the best reputation with the wider public. But after spending an afternoon talking to Rijken about the work AbbVie is doing in the Netherlands and around the world, it’s almost impossible to not feel optimistic that pharma firms who want to do good do exist.

Abbvie Lennaert Rijken

Photo: Abbvie's Lennaert Rijken

Improving people’s health through the Fit for Work initiative

One example of AbbVie’s commitment to improving people’s health and lives is its involvement with the Fit for Work Initiative, which it helped to launch in Europe. The scheme aims to change that by helping people with a chronic condition, such as musculoskelatal diseases (MSD), Parkinson’s or cancer, to keep working. In the Netherlands, Fit for Work is supported by more than 20 organisations, including the University of Amsterdam, Centrum Chronisch Ziek en Werk and Pfizer.

“One of the key things that we have learned is that it’s a challenge for people with chronic conditions to make a good contribution to society,” explains Rijken, “and one of the key drivers is their ability to work.” The figures are certainly startling. Only 67 per cent of the working-age population who have a chronical condition are still in work, whereas 80 per cent of people in the same age group without a chronical condition have a paid job. As the population of the Netherlands gets older, chronical conditions are predicted to affect up to 40 per cent of the Dutch population by 2030, around 7 million people in total.

AbbVie in the Netherlands

“We want to do more than deliver medicine and services,” Rijken explains. “So, we got involved with Fit for Work to create a platform to make sure that employers, employees, physicians and policymakers have a better understanding and concrete tools to improve workability among people that have a chronic condition. This is our goal.”

A young company with a long heritage

AbbVie is now using its expertise to drive policy and practice change across the work and health agendas. Worldwide, the firm employs 29,000 people in more than 175 countries. In total, 330 people work for the firm in the Netherlands: 200 who ensure AbbVie’s medicines and health solutions are available for Dutch patients in the Amsterdam Area’s Hoofddorp, and another 130, who are responsible for AbbVie’s international logistics and supply chain, in Zwolle.

The company originated from Abbott, which was founded in in 1888 by Wallace Abbott, a doctor from Chicago. After separating the two companies in 2013, Abbott Laboratories now specialises in products including medical devices, diagnostic equipment and nutrition products, while AbbVie operates as a research-based pharmaceutical company. It develops and manufactures medicines and associated care solutions for rheumatism, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, hepatitis C, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. “We’re a young company with a long heritage,” says Rijken. “We’re a company of opportunities that wants to do the right thing for the patient. The Fit for Work initiative is just one example of that. We really try to make sure to invest our research and development in areas where there’s a true need to advance care.”

Why Hoofddorp is the perfect base for AbbVie

AbbVie’s presence in the Amsterdam Area is a legacy from its days operating as Abbott, but Rijken says that the region is the perfect base for its operations. “When it comes to research and development we focus on the Netherlands because it has a very strong infrastructure of university hospitals who have a lot of expertise in terms of doing research. In the Amsterdam Area the main advantage is that it’s a super-attractive city and true metropolis that still feels like a small village. The diversity is great, and Schiphol is a major hub for us from a logistical perspective. Hoofddorp is a great base as it can serve our staff living around the Netherlands, not only in Amsterdam but in The Hague as well. And the business culture here fits well with our company as it’s a very open-minded and pragmatic culture. I call it ‘high-performance, down-to-earth.’”

Moving towards more personalised drugs in medicine

In terms of the wider life sciences and health industry in the Netherlands, Rijken says that drugs are being developed as ‘personalised medicine’. “If you compare what’s happening now,” he says, “the direction that we’re going is much more to personalised medicine. Not one drug that we try on all people suffering from say, rheumatoid arthritis, but trying to differentiate to work out what product works best in which patient. And that also means working with big data to get better predictions of what the outcome of a treatment will be.”

For now, AbbVie’s is continuing its work in the Amsterdam Area to develop medicines which will break new ground and be significantly better than the current standard. “That’s what we want to do and will continue to work towards. The arrival of the EMA will help to enhance the life sciences and health sector in the region, and I am very happy with the investment and focus of the municipalities to do that here as well. Larger companies, startups and everyone else need to work together and help each other to develop the right solutions for patients. That’s the most important thing.”

See more testimonials from Amsterdam's life sciences and health sector, or read more business news from around the region.