By John Haughey, Deloitte Industry Leader, Life Sciences & Health Care
Earlier this month I had the pleasure of chairing a panel of life science experts at the Global Financial Times Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology conference.1 The conference brought together some of our industry’s leading minds to discuss the commercial conundrums of disease prevention, the transformational impact of advanced gene and cell therapies and the hope and hype of patient-centricity. The discussion topic for my panel was - ‘Big Bang? Industrial Strategy - Creating a Successful Life Sciences Economy’, and was focused on the UK’s Industrial Strategy and in particular the UK’s sector deal for life sciences.2 In this week’s blog I wanted to share some of my key takeaways from our animated and insightful discussion.
About the sector deal
The sector deal, announced in December 2017, sets out an agreed strategic vision, built on co-investment, for the government and UK life sciences to modernise the industry, boost businesses, and ensure the sector is positioned to respond to the challenges and opportunities of demographic change and pioneering research and development.3 The deal, which is aligned to the themes in Sir John Bell’s Life Sciences Industrial Strategy,4 outlines plans to grow the UK’s international reputation for pioneering early diagnostics and genomics programmes; and the development of innovative clinical trials platforms and digital evidence collection abilities, combined with a progressive regulatory system.
Subsequently, in October 2018, the new secretary of State for Health. Matt Hancock MP, endorsed the deal and announced that the NHS Genomic Medicine Service would expand its world-leading 100,000 genome programme in collaboration with the UK Biobank, to sequence one million genomes over five years. This includes sequencing the genomes of all seriously ill children with suspected genetic disorders. His ultimate ambition, however, is to sequence five million genomes.5 He also announced a new digital technology vision for the NHS that aims to build "the most advanced health and care service in the world" underpinned by a modern technology architecture, a set of open standards and a focus on interoperability.6 He also stated his expectation that the NHS should harness the power of AI to improve efficiency, deliver better outcomes and prevent ill health. Crucial to this is combining the NHS’s development of integrated health and care datasets with leading AI and technology development from industry and academia, to create an ecosystem in which technologies transform healthcare.7
Questions to the panel
Given the above, the questions I posed to the panel ranged from trying to establish their views on the effectiveness of the UK’s life sciences deal and the differences it is actually making. I also explored whether healthcare systems are ready and able to adopt and support innovation. Finally, I sought to gain an understanding of what it takes to create a truly competitive life science industry and the importance of partnerships between industry, academia and healthcare systems to generate and utilise data to help the development of new drugs and deliver better patient care.
There was clear support that NHS data remains the UK’s biggest asset and can be a key differentiator in enabling significant data and analytics initiatives for the industry and across the healthcare system. However, the need remains to resolve access to data including registries and biobank data and the need for better dialogue to convince patients of the benefits of sharing their data. There was also recognition that there is a lot that can be done with de-personalised data. The bottom line is that industry needs data and accepts that curated real-world evidence (RWE) can be really informative for payers and companies.
Specific mention was given to the ‘world leading’ 100,000 genome initiative and support for the fact that data analytics and AI are an integral part of the ‘Grand Challenges’, seen as an area where the NHS could have a tremendous advantage. The life sciences strategy was seen as very helpful in relation to new cell and gene therapy and there was genuine excitement about what’s happening in the UK and the potential for seamless collaboration between academia, technology companies, healthcare clinicians and researchers with lots of opportunity to innovate.
The panel was optimistic about the availability, and the ability, of the UK to attract the right skills and talent, particularly around the rapidly emerging domain of data science. The established golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London will continue to be key epicentres for attracting talent. The panellists all believed that key talent will continue to come to the UK, attracted by its finance capital, its entrepreneurial spirit, world class universities, apprenticeships and skills based innovation systems. Moreover, specific mention was given to the UKs renewed focus on STEM subjects and in particular encouraging females to study these subjects as well as the fact that the UK is a good place for women due to the generous maternity leave and child care arrangements.
The initiatives to promote digital pathology were highlighted as being globally unique; with the NHS seen as having the world’s biggest pathology network. This, together with its strong genomics base, positions the UK to become unique on the AI front with the potential for improvements in earlier diagnosis and population health management having a fundamental impact on healthcare. There was discussion about the huge potential of NHS Digital assets to benefit patients but also an acknowledgement that the use of digital within the NHS is still in its infancy and that it is still not equipped to adopt and diffuse innovation effectively. While there was recognition that the NHS has already invested significantly in Health IT, the prevailing view was that to date this hasn’t been well spent.
Overall, there was acknowledgement that the NHS continues to be cost rather than outcomes driven, with the OECD ranking the UK towards the bottom for health outcomes but the top for efficiency. Fragmentation continues to be a key challenge with the overriding focus on point solutions rather than system-wide change. With particular recognition of the need for more targeted support for SMEs and ways to scale up adoption of new technologies. The prevailing view was that collaboration across the life sciences and healthcare ecosystem would significantly improve outcomes for patients. Part of that push will come from a more educated patient population; especially as digital and health literacy is improved, but there is more still to do. There was acknowledgement of the importance of empowering people to take responsibility for their own health, specifically, the development of ‘the quantified self’ and the benefits that can be realised.
Inevitably, there was some discussion of the current political situation and the impact of Brexit on the availability of the necessary skills and talent to make the new deal a reality. Mention was made of the impact of the drop in the value of sterling on the value of pay levels for overseas workers, specifically nurses, not to mention the introduction of the language test on nurse recruitment. The panel felt that speeding up the language test, access to visas, and collaborations could help address some of these concerns. One view presented was that Brexit could be made into an opportunity by linking it to Global Britain, and making it easy for people to enter Britain. Indeed, whether academic or NHS recruitment, there are opportunities to continue to emphasise the academic excellence in the UK to build the UKs skills and talent base and to remain a magnet for the right skills and talent from around the world.
It was a real privilege to be part of this important panel debate and to have the opportunity to explore key issues that need to be addressed if the UK is to optimise the impact of the sector deal for life sciences. Indeed, my main takeaway is the optimism that prevails about the potential for the UK to remain a leader in AI, genomics and digital innovation.