Will Culliford, associate director in Lexington Communications’ health practice, writes about the importance of the diagnostics industry, and what COVID-19 might mean for the sector going forward.
The UK diagnostics industry has for many years been under-valued by policy makers, under-appreciated by the public, and generally over-shadowed by the quest for new treatments and vaccines. As the health secretary himself wrote recently, “UK pharmaceutical giants don’t have a tradition of diagnostics” which, in his words, is why “this country currently lacks a British diagnostics industry.”
Of course, one could argue that actually we do have a strong diagnostics sector here in the UK – it’s the fifth largest IVD market in Europe and valued at almost £1 billion, according to MedTech Europe. But the problem is it just hasn’t received the recognition or the resources that it needs to thrive.
Either way, the argument has now been superseded by the rapid onset of COVID-19, and as a result the diagnostics industry has been catapulted front and centre of the public health response to the pandemic in the UK. From the rapid roll-out of PCR testing, to the subsequent launch of reliable antibody tests which are now being produced at scale, diagnostics has never had such prominence in the national media or so much attention from the cabinet members conducting daily press conferences from Number 10.
The collaboration between industry, NHS and government has been one of the remarkable stories to come out of this otherwise bleak period, and it bodes well for the future of the life sciences – demonstrating how meaningful partnerships can provide patients with new solutions within weeks rather than years. This is something industry has long been calling for.
So, are we finally entering a new dawn for diagnostics? And if so, what can industry do to leverage this opportunity?
As anyone working in healthcare will tell you, an accurate and timely diagnosis is critical to both patient and NHS – and according to the Office for Life Sciences, around 70% of all clinical decisions are informed by IVDs. They improve outcomes, ensure patients get the best possible treatment as quickly as possible and provide much-needed peace of mind and clarity, while also alleviating pressures on the wider system and helping healthcare practitioners to share the burden of decision-making.
Despite this, companies have often struggled to get new innovation to market, even when products have been positively evaluated by NICE and successfully implemented in NHS pilot sites. In fact, the UK spends less than £14 per capita on IVD products, compared to more than £21 per capita in France and £23 in Italy and Germany. The lack of a funding mandate here has considerably slowed the ability to get diagnostics on the frontline and for a long time, this has been a source of constant frustration.
The challenge now for industry will be to shift the conversation about the value of diagnostics in tackling COVID-19, to a broader conversation about the value of diagnostics in tackling wider healthcare challenges. So industry must ensure this momentum is not lost once we stop talking about coronavirus testing – and to do that we need to encourage the newfound support from government, keep diagnostics in the public eye, and leverage the voice of clinicians that want better access to new technology. Communications and engagement will therefore be critical.
Solutions already exist for diagnosing bowel cancer, influenza, pre-eclampsia, heart failure and a variety of many other conditions – tests which have been shown to save the NHS time and money – and yet they are not being implemented across the NHS in a coordinated manner. The AHSN Network has played a crucial role in starting to address this very issue, using pilots to demonstrate impact and value, before helping to scale-up innovation throughout the country. Yet clearly more needs to be done, which is why it is very welcome to hear the government calling for the creation of a much stronger UK diagnostics industry to support the NHS beyond the pandemic, building on the promising innovation coming out of new life science clusters in places like Cambridge and Manchester.
This is crucial because COVID-19 has clearly shown just how important it is to have access to fast, reliable tests. The public want to know if they have Coronavirus, or indeed antibodies from a past infection, but why should that be any different to another medical condition that can be easily diagnosed? With a more engaged and knowledgeable public, we know there will be demand for greater access to such technology.
Likewise, we already know that healthcare professionals benefit from having access to diagnostics to help triage and treat patients as quickly as possible, which will become increasingly important given the likely pressures on NHS once it resumes ‘normal’ service. So, the demand is likely already there from those using and benefiting from diagnostics.
However, real progress will only happen if we communicate the value of diagnostics in an impactful way which resonates with decision-makers that have now seen what industry has to offer – and what testing can really achieve. Now is the time to move the needle and bring about the change needed to create an even stronger diagnostics sector, for the long-term benefit of the NHS.