Communicating how cutting-edge drug treatments benefit everyone is a tough challenge

One of our most important comms challenges is to convince governments and regulators that costly cutting-edge treatments are worth it.

We are in a golden age of understanding the basis of human disease, writes Amber Fennell
We are in a golden age of understanding the basis of human disease, writes Amber Fennell

We are in a golden age of understanding the basis of human disease. Never before have we been in a better position to make significant progress in the way we treat patients across a multitude of conditions, but yet, at the same time, have so finite resources to pay for it. If innovation is the life support of the healthcare industry, healthcare budgets are what ail it. 

The healthcare industry now knows that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ drug development approach doesn’t work. In many cases, it is a patient’s genetics that will ultimately define what disease they get, how severe it is and how they will react to treatment. With this in mind, drug companies are creating targeted therapies that work specifically for well-defined patient populations. This is fantastic news for the patient who now has a more personalised treatment. However, for the drug company there’s an issue: its patient population is now smaller, but the cost and complexity of bringing a drug to market continues to increase. Add to this the rising pressures on healthcare budgets to pay for it and we face the issue of healthcare innovation being stifled, potentially at a detriment to patient care. 

Therefore, one of the healthcare industry’s most significant comms challenges is to convey to governments and regulators that the cutting-edge innovation being developed to improve the treatment of human disease is worth it. In fact, it could be argued that we have a moral obligation to do so.

The industry also has to be more closely in tune with what patients, carers, physicians, governments and regulators need from new therapies. However, once again, this debate is often stifled with regulation on the interaction between industry and the public. Yet we have to listen: patient groups supported by social media and sites such as PatientsLikeMe are aiding an important debate. Can a cancer drug that improves a patient’s prognosis by a year but causes side effects that impair quality of life be improved? Could we adapt the cost structure of paying for a drug so rather than it costing a huge amount at first, payments could be staggered over time? 

GlaxoSmithKline has recently debated doing this for its child immune disorder gene therapy Strimvelis. Gene therapies are often a cure not a course of treatment and, as such, can have significant price tags. Glybera, the first gene therapy to be approved in Europe in 2012, is the most expensive drug in the world, costing $1m per patient. This pricing caused huge debate and pricing models continue to be a hot topic; it is therefore interesting to see that, even before the pricing of Strimvelis has been announced, GSK is stealing a march on potential critics by talking about new pricing approaches for one-off treatments. 

In a world of tight budgets and ageing populations, the industry needs to be one step ahead of the narrative. Cost will always be an issue but patients need new drugs that make a difference to their lives. It is our responsibility to communicate that this innovation, while it may be costly, is worth it.

Amber Fennell is partner and co-founder of Consilium Strategic Communications

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