Jackie Williams, general manager, Astellas UK & Ireland, on her achievements, COVID-19, the challenges and opportunities for pharma and the need for progress in how we value innovation

What is your background and current role?

I started my career as an admin assistant at Baxter Healthcare in 1990 and have progressed to lead sales and marketing teams in multiple pharmaceutical companies. Joining Astellas in 2015, I had leadership roles in the UK and Australia before finally taking up my current role as general manager of Astellas UK & Ireland.

My current role sits within the Astellas Established Markets Leadership team (covering Europe, Australia and Canada) – driving forward our strategic objectives. To be able to work towards solutions that offer patients more options and opportunities to embrace life, without such a heavy burden from their disease or condition. It’s what motivates me each day.

What has been your greatest professional achievement to date?

The way Astellas in the UK responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by working with the National Health Service (NHS) to put in place agreements that ensured patients could continue treatment without disruption makes me immensely proud. That required a huge amount of effort, flexibility and agility from all parties and, critically, keeping in sight what was best for each patient.

And your greatest frustration?

The pace of change, both slow and fast, can sometimes lead to frustration when internal and external forces are not aligned. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated to everyone what can be achieved through a willingness to act with agility and an unprecedented responsiveness on both sides. I am sure that it can be a positive learning experience for us all, to ensure that we stay focused on delivering value to our health systems and ultimately the patients we serve.

What do you think are the key challenges and opportunities for the pharma industry in the UK?

As we look beyond the pandemic and also adjust to the UK’s departure from the European Union, there are new things we must address.

The UK has a strong ecosystem for clinical research and drug discovery, which has been enhanced substantially since the launch of the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy. The UK now has particularly strong infrastructure for genomics and oncology research and some of the best access to health data available internationally. These are important areas for the pharmaceutical industry to help grow and maintain a strong life sciences sector in the UK.

It is also vital that we continue to work with regulatory bodies to demonstrate the value of our medicines. The ongoing National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Methods consultation recognises the need to adapt to the growing complexity of evaluating new medicines. While the industry has been closely involved in those discussions, we must also continue the dialogue and be ready to swiftly implement the recommendations so patients and the NHS can benefit from them.

Is there potential for a closer working relationship between pharma and the NHS?

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the true depth of relationship between pharma and the NHS. All parties fully united and committed to supporting frontline doctors, nurses, pharmacists and all other medical staff to address the critical needs of patients. What has been key, is the need to listen and be an agile partner.

Ultimately, pharma and the NHS are all working toward the same goal – better care outcomes. While discussions between the two have always happened, the pandemic demonstrated the need for flexibility and agility in our partnership. It is critical we do not ignore the insights that were gathered during this time. While originating from the immediate necessities that COVID-19 presented, they can help us shape the future of collaboration for years to come.

Does pharma need to change how it measures and demonstrates the value of innovation?

Yes. I say that because true innovation is not an iteration of something that already existed. When we encounter truly innovative solutions, they will likely require new ways of demonstrating that value. Until the innovation does that it won’t succeed. Looking outside of the pharmaceutical industry, and whether you love or loathe them, Apple has been exceptional at this for a long time. They often are not the first to market, but their solutions are transformative as they understand how to demonstrate the value of that innovation.

Coming back to our industry, gene and cell therapy is probably the best current example of where demonstrating value is a challenge. This is a truly innovative form of medicine where data collection and generation are difficult to align to existing frameworks. Given the first gene therapy was approved in Europe almost 10 years ago, there’s clearly a bottleneck to progress here and demonstrating value is almost certainly part of it. Astellas works with groups like the Cell and Gene Therapy Collective, amongst others, to try and reduce the barriers that exist to doctors and patients accessing these innovations.

Can the current cost appraisal framework be modified to ensure more equitable and affordable access to new medicines on the NHS?

The reality is the healthcare budget is not endless. Hard decisions must be made to balance resources against delivering the best outcomes for the greatest number of patients possible.

A lot has already been done to address inequity in access – reviews for end-of-life drugs and a higher ICER threshold for very rare diseases, for example, but many remain. This challenge can only be addressed through broader collaboration. We work with NHS decision makers as early as possible to ensure we have a clear understanding of what they are looking for.

What do you think pharma’s key learnings from the COVID-19 pandemic will be?

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that we can adapt – to quickly and successfully implement new processes and approaches that benefit patients. It’s important that we remember this as we look to recovery. We have seen what we can achieve with the right approach and partnerships in place. Now, we must translate these learnings across all aspects of healthcare.

For me the virtual setting will be one of these learnings. We have had to learn on our feet. To maintain critical relationships with healthcare professionals, we innovated – finding new ways to connect. Ways that consider the need for greater efficiency and the increasing time restraints faced by physicians. An understanding of the need to place the emphasis on their needs. This agility and flexibility in the way we engage and communicate, for me, will be a key takeaway from the pandemic.

What are your passions outside of work?

Getting involved in my local community is an important part of my personal life and I get the opportunity to volunteer in a wide range of activities and events.

I also love to travel both within the UK and further afield. Travelling with my family, exploring the beauty of the UK countryside with my dog, and skiing are all things I am passionate about.