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How to Lead with Impact as Healthcare Manufacturers and Innovators in a Post-COVID World

How to Lead with Impact as Healthcare Manufacturers and Innovators in a Post-COVID World


"Unprecedented times…Uncertain circumstances…Unlike anything we’ve seen before."

We’ve all had more than our fill of those "un" phrases over the last 22 months. It was quite unclear how the healthcare industry would respond when faced with COVID-19. Could companies, organizations and institutions come together in unconventional ways and engage in unfamiliar collaborations to rise to the challenge?

Well, let’s start with the challenge. It’s not just tackling COVID-19; we cannot pause all our other efforts while we overcome the pandemic. We are trying to change the trajectory of health for humanity. Slowing or stopping this work, across many diseases, would cost lives and harm people. Patients with cardiovascular diseases would suffer where they need not, people would remain with progressing cancers that could have been helped, and the list goes on.

We came together as an industry in a way that I thought would not be possible to produce therapies and vaccines for SARS-CoV-2. It was heart-warming. Competitors collaborated, united by the imperative of the common goal. We capitalized on decades of good science to introduce vaccines to the world in a time frame that most, even those that succeeded, would have considered implausible at the outset. We also changed everything to find unique ways to maintain momentum with other innovation discovery, across all our other clinical trials, discovery research, manufacturing, and distribution.

So, to my question… yes, companies, organizations and institutions did rise to the challenge, but there remains so much more work ahead. The bottom line is this—as innovators, researchers, manufacturers, providers, and as an industry, we’re over and done with the “un’s.” Our work is now precedented, and our next mission is certain: We must lead with impact for our worldwide patient community by implementing learnings to improve our healthcare system and ensure preparedness for the next global health crisis—because it will arrive.

To further explore the commitment needed to sustain the momentum established by the industry’s response to COVID-19, the National Academy of Medicines convened a nine-part series of papers. I was honored to join a group of industry experts from Novartis, Medtronic, Exact Sciences, 3M, and Labcorp to offer thoughts in the most recent piece titled Health Product Manufacturers and Innovators COVID-19 Impact Assessment: Lessons Learned and Compelling Needs. In it, we outline the steps we need to take to alter the trajectory of disease and the health of humanity for the better.

An Integrated Strategy for More Robust & Equitable Healthcare

If we are to sustain the pace for a strong future that we set as an industry when dealing with COVID-19, we will need a comprehensive strategy that addresses all facets of our healthcare system. We must:

  • Encourage increased support for science.
  • Ensure a more robust global supply chain.
  • Develop frameworks for safe and effective data sharing.
  • Advance policies around reimbursement and digital health.
  • Enhance public and private sector collaboration.
  • Improve care offerings, particularly for underrepresented and underserved populations.

When little was known about the virus, healthcare regulators were especially willing to listen to challenges being faced and they acted rapidly to provide guidance on emerging needs. That rapid response must be continued, but the regulators behind it also need support. We need to sustain funding for healthcare organizations like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with guidance for appropriate allocation of resources across areas of greatest need, such as fundamental human biology and applied technology.

A willingness to listen and collaborate, from both public and private sectors, has been a big part of what streamlined the COVID-19 response. This practice of transparency and early engagement must continue to help scale up testing supplies and infrastructure more quickly and ensure fair distribution of a limited set of materials during a national response. In addition, a robust national strategic plan should be developed for pandemic preparedness and response.

One aspect of our future collaboration must include the development of a framework for industry stakeholders to enter data sharing agreements during national emergencies. In cooperation with FDA, CDC, and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, we should develop guidelines and data standards for health authorities and industry stakeholders to streamline reporting and mutual expectations. This framework must include investment in information technology systems by hospitals; centralized, accessible information storage is key to enhancing data-driven decisions in healthcare and during crises.

More than anything else, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the significant disparities that exist in the U.S. healthcare system. Black, Latino, and indigenous peoples have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and factors like age, gender, economic, and environmental components further exacerbate these effects. How can we combat these obstacles to achieve greater equity in health?

While this won't happen overnight, we can improve our systems through a multi-pronged approach. First, we must create greater diversity and inclusion in clinical research to develop treatments more effectively for all patients impacted by disease. Clinical trials face a stark disparity in terms of participant diversity. We can address this by reducing barriers to enrollment of representative minority populations, among other strategies. A great example of what that looks like: our mobile unit clinical trial education campaign in the Southeastern United States.

This work has long been a focus at Janssen, and our ENSEMBLE study to test the safety and efficacy of our COVID-19 vaccine can serve as an example of the work that remains to be done to achieve greater health equity.

In parallel, we need to establish appropriate infrastructure to bring transformative therapies to the patients that need them. It is time to form a fuller understanding of the complex global supply chain and ensure that it remains robust even in times of crises so that everyone can safely rely on access to therapies.

Finally, Digital Health came to the forefront during the pandemic. Devices like wearables proved key to continuing clinical research in remote settings, and they could be a catalyst in the push for more accessible trials. The continued use of these digital solutions and other innovative technologies following the pandemic will depend in part on reimbursement policies set by the government and the acceptance of these methods within clinical trial regulations and our healthcare system.

The Road Ahead

These tasks may seem daunting—after all, we're calling for change on a global scale. But there is no going back now—many of the aspects of the 'what' and 'how' were different and many of these will be maintained going forward. COVID-19 was a catalyst for change, a Cambrian period in our evolutionary history as a biopharmaceutical, diagnostic and device industry.

As one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, and through extensive collaboration with our public and private-sector peers, we feel we’re uniquely poised to contribute to holistic solutions. Janssen's mission aligns with these key components, as we work to leverage our unique capabilities and collaborations to co-create strategic and operational solutions to help forge a future where disease is a thing of the past.

Unprecedented no longer. There is no looking back. Let's get to work.

January 18, 2022