Above: Healthcare conference team.

The key challenge that healthcare enterprise leaders face is determining how to drive innovation while addressing problems of affordability, inefficiency and gaps in quality. This task is now complicated by strong economic headwinds that limit the resources available to attack these problems. Industry executives are also dealing with new sets of competitive and regulatory pressures on their efforts to drive business growth.

At Columbia Business School’s 5th Annual Healthcare Conference held in New York City on November 21, over 500 students, alumni and other professionals heard more than 40 speakers and panelists discuss these issues.

The featured healthcare leaders said they are embracing change to develop creative solutions to the industry’s growing problems and to provide attractive investment opportunities on a global basis. A career strategies panel of executive and corporate recruiters also presented their views on the skills and talents necessary for healthcare professionals to succeed in this dynamic environment. This was followed by a concluding career fair and networking reception with the conference’s 17 corporate sponsors.

Ed Ludwig ’75, chairman and CEO of BD (Becton, Dickinson), gave the opening keynote address. Ludwig said that a successful global healthcare company must use technology, scale, global reach and operational excellence to offer value-added products. These products should reduce costs, enhance the quality of patient care and generate sustainable earnings growth.

Following his remarks, four concurrent panels took place in the morning session on the topics of pharma and biotech, medical devices, diagnostics and payor/provider issues.

The pharma and biotech panel discussed the trend among companies to narrow their therapeutic priorities, focus on biologics, pursue licensing and target acquisitions and seek enhanced productivity and cost savings. Numerous early-stage biotechnology companies are turning to larger pharma and biotechnology firms to survive as they are unable to secure capital from the public market. Global medical device companies are seeking to introduce innovative and cost-effective products in a challenging regulatory and pricing/reimbursement environment and pursuing acquisitions and new markets to meet growth objectives. The consensus of the payor/ provider panel was that any healthcare reform in 2009 would likely be incremental due largely to economic and political headwinds, and that a key focus would be on information technology and expanding access to those without insurance coverage.

Robert Essner, former Chairman and CEO of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and now executive-in-residence at Columbia Business School, provided the lunchtime keynote speech. He suggested that although the pharma industry faces significant challenges, the combination of new drugs, biologics and vaccines in key areas of unmet need (e.g. Alzheimer’s, cancer, congestive heart failure) and the massive influx of informed baby boomers, who are demanding health solutions, provides favorable long-term growth prospects for innovative global pharmaceutical companies.

Three afternoon panels covered M&A, life science investments and emerging markets. It is anticipated that healthcare M&A will remain active across all sectors and that consolidation among Big Pharma companies appears inevitable. Early-stage life science companies and investors face a capital squeeze, which is threatening the viability of existing companies with lower levels of funds available for new investment. Emerging markets are an increasing focus for global pharmaceutical and medical device companies that are seeking new markets for their products.

The final panel of the day focused on the changing talent acquisition and development strategies of major healthcare enterprises. Panelists commented that successful leaders will need to have global and cross-functional experiences; that employees should be open to lateral moves that broaden their skills and experiences; and that healthcare companies considering new hires are seeking a broader “toolkit” of skills that reach beyond the traditional focus on healthcare backgrounds.

For more information about the conference and sponsors visit www.cbshealthcareconference.com.