Bridging the gap between medicines innovation and access

Partnerships between the pharmaceutical industry and policymakers that place the patient at the centre are needed to improve standards of healthcare, argues Aidan Lynch

Much goes into making a medicine. The process requires innovation, creativity, perseverance, and huge investment.

There will be obstacles, expected and unforeseen, and lots of failures. It can take as much as 13 years, and cost about €2bn, to bring a new medicine to the market.

In the end, though, the risk will be worth it. Because we have the potential to help people live longer, healthier lives, and to discover tomorrow’s cures.

The pharmaceutical industry will look to make a commercial return on its investment. But affordability and innovation are not mutually exclusive.

A progressive approach to developing new medicines, and making them available to patients, recognises the risk and reward equation, and tries to balance it.

Pharmaceutical innovators have a major stake in Ireland’s future. Life expectancy here is rising faster than the European Union average. By 2030, one in six people will be over 65 and there will be twice as many people aged 85 and over.

By 2040, an extra million people will live here. As the population grows, changes, and ages, the role of innovation in meeting medical need becomes more vital.

Irish patients are not getting access to innovative medicines as quickly as their peers in other EU countries. If we are to build a better, healthier Ireland, we must value innovation and fix the process for getting medicines to patients. This is now an urgent challenge.

When we were framing our recently published ‘Manifesto for Better Health’, we wanted to be as honest about the challenges we face as we are excited about the opportunities ahead.

It would have been easy to publish a pre-budget submission, with a shopping list of Government ‘asks’. However, we know that industry, especially one the size of ours, should take a partnership approach to working with policymakers to improve the system for all.

It is sometimes hard to find the space to discuss healthcare impact without getting drawn into a debate around the price of medicines. We recognise the challenges of medicines affordability.

Our members are playing their part in responsible medicines pricing. We are making good on a pledge to limit the prices of our medicines to an average of the prices in 14 EU countries.

Since July 2016, there have been three rounds of price cuts for thousands of medicines. By the end of 2020 when our current agreement with the Government expires, €785m in overall savings are expected to have been delivered.

In the first seven months of this year, the price of prescribed medicines dropped by 6.5%.

But there are longer-term issues at stake. Cancer and heart disease remain Ireland’s biggest killers. Yet, these are the therapy areas in which we experience the worst delays for medicines.

Unless something changes soon, these and other diseases will create huge social and economic burdens in terms of hospital stays, procedures, and community care.

We have seen the impact of innovation across so many diseases. The development of statins revolutionised the treatment of cardiovascular disease. Combination anti-retrovirals transformed HIV from a terminal disease to a chronic illness.

Hepatitis C has virtually been cured by new medicines. Scientific advancements mean that we know more about illness than ever before. This knowledge is being translated into new ways of treating common conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and many cancers, as well as rarer conditions like haemophilia. Science will be key to overcoming the increasing threat of anti-microbial resistance.

Ireland, with the right support from Government, has the opportunity to take part in global leadership in the discovery and development of new medicines and cures. It will take co-investment between the public and private sectors, with a focus on how we capture and mine data for personalised healthcare, and pursue the development of new treatments like gene therapy and cell therapy.

Though we are small, Ireland’s reach around the world is wide. The scale of the research-based pharmaceutical industry in Ireland means that we are hooked into a global network of innovation. Our scientists are well-placed to help discover and develop tomorrow’s cures.

In the Manifesto for Better Health, we have started on the road towards offering solutions for how the gap between innovation and access can be bridged. Our conference today will explore this theme.

Among the key proposals we have put forward are:

  • Speed of access: We want to place Ireland in the top seven of western European countries for access to innovative medicines. We are benchmarked against 14 EU countries on pricing. It is reasonable to expect that our timelines for reimbursement are at least as good as those same 14 countries.
  • Boost funding: We call for a predictable, multi-annual budgetary framework, with sustained, reasonable annual increases in funding for innovative medicines.
  • Fuel innovation: We recommend creating a chief innovation officer role in the Department of Health to plan how Ireland pursues new cures like gene therapy and cell therapy, and leverages data for personalised medicine.
  • All of this can happen if industry, Government, and policymakers work together for it.

    Through partnerships that place the patient at the centre, we can lift Ireland’s standards of care to be among the best in Europe.

    We hope the long-promised industry-Government dialogue on innovative medicines can now begin.

    Aidan Lynch is president of the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association


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