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Gitte Aabo – A true pharmaceutical industry leader

Gitte Aabo

She joined LEO Pharma by chance, more than 27 years ago, but she remained there, for the true focus on helping patients and her love of the job.

For more than a century Denmark’s LEO Pharma has had a solid niche, creating and selling drugs for dermatological and thrombotic conditions, penetrating markets across the world. Its successful portfolio of prescription drugs already treat dozens of chronic and painful maladies.

The unmet needs are big

Now a decade into its second century, LEO Pharma’s  President and CEO Gitte Aabo’s goals for the company seek to strengthen and expand that niche; seeing the firm reach 125 million patients by 2025 and to be a global leader in medical dermatology are among her immediate priorities, but she sees so much more that LEO can do. “With more than 3 000 recognized skin diseases, the unmet needs are big,” she says.

Her first goals are well on the way to being achieved, considering the company’s extensive treatments for psoriasis and skin infections, as well as what is in the works for eczema and other skin diseases, she notes. Aabo also wants LEO Pharma to be more active in the market for rare skin diseases, a milestone that is on the horizon.

“Through our partnership with PellePharm, we are right now entering phase 3 for the first therapeutic treatment for Gorlin Syndrome, so hopefully the first rare skin disease treatment from LEO Pharma will soon be a reality.”

Transparent, clear and honest

Gitte Aabo entered the dermatology field by chance. She joined LEO Pharma’s finance department more than 27 years ago, straight out of business school and eager for her first job. She held various positions throughout the company, mostly in finance, until she was named president and CEO in 2008. The fact that she stayed at LEO, however, is no accident, she explains.

“The unique company culture and true focus on helping patients appealed to me from day one – and they still do today more than ever.”

Her contributions also have been recognized by her peers. She earned the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award at eyeforpharma’s annual European awards. “So many leaders are experts in self-promotion; preaching change while maintaining the status quo,” said Paul Simms, Chairman of eyeforpharma, in a statement. “Gitte, however, is authentic. She leads by example, motivated not just to earn profit, but to earn profit to be able to serve patients and people better. As such, she leads not just LEO, but the wider pharmaceutical industry.”

Aabo described her leadership style as “Transparent, clear and honest. I believe in inclusion – in telling colleagues at all levels what we do, why we do it, what lies behind and what is expected of them.”

A good day, according to Aabo, is when she receives letters from patients thanking her or the company for treatments that improved their quality of life. She first experienced that many years ago, before becoming CEO, but it has happened many times since and today’s letters move and motivate her as much as the first ones did. “I really love my job and the company,” she says.

The least favorite part of her job, Aabo notes, is having to make decisions that have a negative impact on people.

The potential of health data

Times are challenging for leaders in the pharmaceutical industry as companies face more issues and criticisms. Among those challenges is ensuring health data is used correctly, Aabo says.

“There is a huge potential in systematically gathering and analyzing health data,” she notes. “But this potential will not be reaped if there is no trust among citizens in the safe use of health data. Establishing safe environments for analyzing health data and testing new technologies is not something industry can do alone. We need to work together with authorities and healthcare systems to establish safe systems and procedures.”

Everybody should feel comfortable giving consent to the use of their health data, she adds.

“We need to properly communicate how someone’s health data, regardless of whether you are a patient or not, can help improve treatments for thousands of other people. Becoming better at sharing information and developing new solutions together is the real task for the future. We also need to make healthcare systems more adaptive and patient-centric.” “That will require every part of the healthcare system to be able to share information about individual patients in a safe way. It will also require giving the patients more choice and control over their treatments.”

Good health and well-being

As part of LEO Pharma’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) commitment, the company focuses on pricing and patient access. “Our strongest contribution is clearly to [the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal] SDG number three, Good health and well-being,” Aabo said.

This includes expanding dermatological solutions by addressing unmet medical needs in society, removing barriers to healthcare by striving to improve accessibility, quality, and affordability of health services available to dermatology patients, and strengthening patient voice through increasing patient influence on policies, guidelines, and disease management.

Aabo is also directly involved with SDGs as a member of the High Level Advisory Board driven by the Confederation of Danish Industry. The board’s aim is to create dialogue among the most influential companies and individuals working with the sustainability agenda in Denmark and abroad, she explains.

The ongoing debates about drug pricing will also involve weighing patient and societal concerns, she notes. “Thanks to medical science and new technologies, we can do more for individual patients today than we have ever before,” explains Aabo. “At the same time, patients’ expectations have also increased. We all expect to be treated quickly and in a way that is convenient and fits with our daily lives. That puts great pressure on national healthcare systems.How do we ensure the highest quality of treatment in a financially sustainable way? There is not one single answer to that question, but I think that generally patient-related outcome and societal value of treatments are factors that need to be guiding in the discussion for the benefit of patients.”

Capitalize on your specialization

Among the strengths of the life science industry in the Nordic countries is the ability of companies to capitalize on their specializations, which Aabo believes is a trend likely to continue.

“If you take the three biggest Danish pharmaceutical companies – Novo Nordisk, Lundbeck and LEO Pharma – we are all focused in specific therapeutic areas. That as a starting point means that you are dedicated – and that the employees and not least the patients know that you are in it for the long term. It is not that we suddenly change focus for financial reasons and drop a therapeutic focus. We stay there and pursue progress. That also means we build up unique knowledge and insights,” Aabo concludes.

Gitte Aabo

Born: 1967

Education: Bachelor’s degree in Economics, HD in Business Administration, MBA at Copenhagen Business School.

Career: At LEO Pharma since 1992, Director of Finance (1999), CEO (2008). Member of the Board of the Danish National Bank, the American Skin Association, the American Skin Association Education Council and EFPIA (European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations).

Interests: Spending time with her two teenage daughters (they finished a half-marathon together last year), traveling and reading (especially to learn about new subjects).