• Stephen Whitehead

    Posted in category Opinion by Stephen Whitehead on 24/01/2014

    Building a vision for an innovative future: Life Sciences Strategy two years on

When Simon Stevens assumes his post as Chief Executive of NHS England in April, he will be faced with a multitude of tasks, the enormity of which would test even the most experienced healthcare professional.

​One of his toughest challenges will be how to foster new ideas and create the right conditions for those ideas to flourish and permeate across the health service.  An innovative NHS not only improves health outcomes for patients, it encourages investment in the UK, identifying us as a hub for a thriving and successful life sciences sector. 

The Government was right to recognise the importance of the pharmaceutical industry helping deliver sustainable long-term growth and global competitiveness, as part of its Strategy for UK Life Sciences, launched in December 2011.  Innovation has a key role to play in optimising patient access to new medicines and encouraging joint-working between industry, NHS and academia.  Many of the actions identified in the strategy have succeeded, yet the UK still lags behind other countries in terms of uptake of innovation and patient access to innovative new medicines. Implementation of some of Government’s commitments in the Strategy for UK Life Sciences has been inconsistent and in some cases, less rapid than hoped. 

Yesterday’s report by LifeSciencesUK – a coalition of the UK’s four key healthcare trade associations – sheds new light on the opportunities and challenges the Government faces two years on from the publication of the Strategy for UK Life Sciences.  Some of the commitments have shown considerable progress: the Biomedical Catalyst Fund for example, has seen an investment of £125 million to support medical research projects across the UK.  Jointly managed by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Technology Strategy Board (TSB), the fund has leveraged almost £70 million of additional private capital and inward investment for project specific work.  It has also encouraged more collaboration between academia and industry, with a quarter of the business-led projects involving two or more parties. 

Whilst progress is clearly being made, we at LifeSciencesUK are concerned that the ‘clear commitment and leadership from the Government’ promised by the Strategy has not been consistently applied.  A number of actions have progressed so slowly that they are yet to deliver anything close to their stated ambition.  The Innovation Scorecard is a prime example of this.  The aim of the Scorecard was to develop a tracking system designed to check compliance of adoption of NICE approved medicines at a local level.  In principle therefore, a valuable tool for patients to help them understand how well their local health services are providing the latest medicines and technologies.  The first Scorecard was published in January 2013 and since then there have been three further iterations, but they have failed to keep pace with the latest NICE technology appraisals and have fallen short of the stated aims in the original commitment. 

Progress on other promising actions in the strategy appears to have stagnated.  For example, the Earlier Access to Medicines Scheme promised to facilitate patient access to new medicines, up to a year before marketing authorisation for selected medicines where there is a high unmet need.  But outstanding funding and access issues have led to a halt in the development of the scheme. 

The Government needs to address these issues as a matter of urgency if it wants to encourage investment in the UK life sciences industry and increase patient access to innovative new medicines.  Other countries such as Belgium and Turkey have recently introduced similar schemes which are appropriately funded to make them workable, and the UK could learn from these.

We recognise that the adoption and spread of real innovation in the NHS requires a culture shift across the health service.  Whilst this is clearly a long-term process, the Strategy for UK Life Sciences is an important first step in ensuring that patients truly benefit from innovation in the life sciences sector.  Maintaining our global status whilst making sure patients have access to new medicines should be at the top of Simon Steven’s priority list.  In an article in the Health Service Journal in March 2012, Simon Stevens argued that NHS leaders need to paint an inspiring vision of what progress could mean for patients and for health professionals.  In April this year he will have an opportunity to do just that. 

Stephen Whitehead
ABPI Chief Executive
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