In his book The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, John M. Barry writes that the 1918 flu that killed 100 million worldwide was not only a story of “havoc, death and desolation” but also a “story of science, of discovery . . . and how one changes the way one thinks", Diplomatic Courier writes in the article INNOVATION AND POST-PANDEMIC HEALTHCARE. After more than a century of medical and technological advances, another global pandemic is causing sickness, hospitalizations and scores of deaths together with severe and growing economic and social unrest. Innovators immediately began working on new tests, antivirals and vaccines.
The question of healthcare access is center stage, and companies playing a role in shaping the new post-COVID-19 environment will face new challenges as well as opportunities. There are six key questions that companies and innovators must consider to stay ahead and prepare to overcome these challenges to come back stronger.
1. How will innovators respond to demands for free or deeply discounted products and calls for access to their intellectual property? Will companies effectively demonstrate empathy and transparency as many already have in forecasting how they would provide their products to the public? How will they address demands, threats to their intellectual property and attempts to demonize their company and senior leadership? How will they speak to the innovative spirit of their employees and explain how they are good stewards of any government funding? Being mindful of access expectations and also effectively communicating their innovation story, they can position themselves as important allies on the pandemic battlefield.
2. How will the pandemic affect future regulatory policies? New innovations are springing forward—and being adopted—at record speed, leapfrogging once onerous regulatory processes. Will the regulatory regimes that carefully find the balance between speed and safety be altered to favor speed? Governments that maintain the balance and find ways to speed approvals without sacrificing safety will allow greater access of important new discoveries to their citizens.
3. How will government and private insurance reimbursement decisions evolve moving forward? The pandemic has also spurred rapid adoption of telemedicine and digital health technologies and the world will be watching whether the decision by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid to reimburse for televisits will become permanent. In Asia, the impetus to adopt digital technology in healthcare provisioning has accelerated since the pandemic, and we are seeing traditional systems starting to embrace telemedicine.
4. Will competitors be open to working with rivals as partners and will public-private partnerships be strengthened? We are already seeing non-traditional alliances between competitors; how should they best communicate that partnership with customers and stakeholders? Questions will arise regarding how companies can be incentivized to work on licensing partnerships to quickly manufacture breakthrough treatments worldwide. Additionally, will there be more support for public-private partnerships? We have seen successful alliances in the past, such as Genomics England and Access Accelerated. In the U.S., that partnership has been manifested through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) at the U.S. Health and Human Services, and funding has led to several recent positive developments. Nations around the world, such as the EU and Singapore, are funding efforts to develop vaccines, anti-viral research, and devices and yet how quickly nations distribute funds to incentivize innovation will be determined.
5. The reputation of healthcare companies is on the rise—will it continue? While the reputation of those on the frontlines such as nurses have traditionally been high, it has been less so the case for pharmaceutical companies—especially in recent years as their pricing policies have been in the cross-hairs of politicians on all sides of the political spectrum. APCO Insight’s research data shows a shift in the views of healthcare companies by Americans. When asked the question “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, how much more or less important will each of the following be in creating a safe and prosperous world?” Approximately 60 percent of respondents said global healthcare companies of all sizes are key to achieving that goal. Of course, these reputational numbers are not set in stone and what happens to reputation if there are quality concerns, delays in breakthroughs and conflict with government authorities? How companies manage these dynamics and communicate their empathy and commitment to innovation will be key.
6. How do health providers maintain access for patients during a pandemic? In many countries around the globe, the fears of overwhelmed hospitals and the lack of personal protective equipment, as well as the goal of flattening the curve led to government mandates on health providers prohibiting non-essential visits and procedures. But physicians and the public have questioned whether these orders have gone too far, and the cost to the health and well-being of the public. As nations prepare for subsequent waves of infections, governments and providers will have to rethink previously limiting policies and find creative ways to provide essential healthcare services such as oncology screenings while maintaining capacity for future COVID-19 patients.
Pandemics are life-changing—medically, socially, and economically. As in 1918, today we are at a tipping point and issues of access to healthcare must be reevaluated. The main challenge will be the ability of governments and companies to quickly ramp up pharmaceutical and testing solutions and then distribute them to people around the globe.
Over the next year, we will see whether the spirit of partnership between the healthcare industry and governments will be hampered or enhanced, whether policies fostering innovation take on new urgency, and whether lessons are learned about the response and mitigation efforts.
The goal for healthcare companies should be to highlight their commitment to access through pricing, innovation, and even collaboration with competitors. They need to communicate the need for governments to support their efforts through policies that support innovation through regulatory policies and public-private partnerships. And if countries seek to shut down to preempt a second wave, providers, healthcare professionals, and patient advocates need to speak up on the health consequences, to strike a balance between caring for COVID-19 patients and keeping the doors to the doctors’ offices open.