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Julian Cole

Senior Director, Medical Affairs, Gilead Sciences

Patients have had restricted access to medical care and innovation during COVID-19. Stakeholder collaboration is vital to ensure this doesn’t become a long-term setback.

The full impact of COVID-19 on UK health services may not be fully understood for some time – but it’s already clear that the effects go beyond front line services. With substantial resources diverted to tackling the crisis, some groups of patients have found care harder to come by.

“COVID-19 has brought the importance of our health into sharp focus,” explains Julian Cole, Country Medical Director for UK and Ireland at research-based biopharmaceutical company, Gilead Sciences. “However, it’s also reduced patient access to care and innovation.”

In blood cancer for example, clinical trials have been paused because staff have been reallocated to care for COVID-19 patients, and specialist blood cancer treatments such as CAR T cell therapies have in some cases been delayed due to limited hospital capacity.

We must continue to collaborate to make up for lost time and ensure that funding and staff are in place so that studies can get up and running again.

Innovating to access health care

Yet the pandemic has also been a catalyst for systemic changes which could revolutionise care in the long term, such as the introduction of remote GP consultations.

 “While some patients will always prefer face-to-face interaction with their physician, the feedback we’ve had across the therapy areas we work in, is that video calls are sometimes more convenient for patients and clinicians,” Cole said.

Similarly, blood testing has been rolled out to GPs’ surgeries and home drop delivery introduced for prescriptions – providing easier access to care.

“There have been some positive changes and real innovation brought about by COVID-19 across many organisations such as charities like ours and the NHS and these mustn’t be lost when life returns to the ‘new’ normal”, said Ropinder Gill, Chief Executive, Lymphoma Action. “It’s vital to continue to ask how we can all do more for cancer patients, including those affected by lymphoma, so that every patient can benefit from improvements in cancer care and treatment”.

Working together to make up for lost time

To ensure progress isn’t lost and patients in the UK can access future innovations in healthcare, all stakeholders will have to work together – and recent successful examples of collaboration give cause for hope.

Two years ago, pharma companies, NHS England, NICE (The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), the Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF) and others worked together to ensure the successful roll-out of CAR T cell therapy across the NHS in an expediated timeframe.

There has also been an extraordinary collaborative response to the pandemic, Cole said, with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) having approved some necessary research in days rather than weeks or months.

“Things can move fast if the desire is there,” he said. “We must continue to collaborate to make up for lost time and ensure that funding and staff are in place so that studies can get up and running again, and the system can harness innovative healthcare technologies and potentially transform quality of life and treatment outcomes for these patients.”

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