Thom Renwick, strategic lead for ophthalmology, Roche UK, talks to PharmaTimes about the future for UK ophthalmology and key learnings from COVID-19

What is your background and current role?

I started my career as a hospital sales rep in the UK, specialising in oncology. It was a brilliant starting point to help me understand the world of pharma and how they were helping healthcare systems tackle huge challenges. From there, I moved on to various marketing roles in oncology and immunology, both fascinating areas where the science is truly cutting edge and advances so quickly.

After a few UK marketing and sales management roles, I moved to Roche’s global HQ in Basel, Switzerland, as the Global Marketing Lead for Ophthalmology. After a couple of years, I was offered my current role as Strategic Lead for Ophthalmology in the UK.

Although this was much sooner than I had planned to leave the global business, it was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to – not only because there’s so much innovation happening in the UK ophthalmology market right now, but also because returning to the UK company felt like coming home.

What does your day-to-day job involve?

It’s my job to set the strategy for Roche’s ophthalmology portfolio in the UK, and make sure it’s delivered. This means constantly keeping on top of the latest developments in the field by listening to what’s truly on the minds of HCPs. Getting out to hear from real people is an important part of my job.

For example, in July I attended the Oxford Ophthalmological Congress, and events like these make sure we are part of a community that is striving to address the same goals. For our overarching vision of ‘saving people’s eyesight’ to become a reality we must continue to listen and co-create with the clinical community.

Why the interest in ophthalmology?

My passion for ophthalmology comes from seeing the impact that various eye conditions can have on people, first-hand. Ten years ago, my uncle was diagnosed with neovascular age-related macular degeneration (also known as wet AMD) – a condition that makes the middle part of your vision blurry.

Within months, he went from having good vision to struggling with day-to-day tasks like driving and shopping. And the burden didn’t stop once treatment started and his vision improved. My aunt and uncle still plan their whole lives around trips to the hospital.

I want to help improve outcomes for patients like my uncle, to help them get their sight back, to make sure they have the reassurances needed that their treatment is working and to make treatment a smaller, more manageable part of their lives.

What do you think the key learnings from the COVID-19 pandemic will be in this area?

There’s no doubt that people’s sight will have deteriorated because of the pandemic and the delay that was created for diagnosis and treatments. It’s become clear we always need to be one step ahead with technology. Lots of great initiatives were brought in during the pandemic to assess and manage patients – imagine if that had all been in place before COVID-19.

It’s great that technology is now available to patients and clinicians, and that it’s already improving care. But we can’t wait for the next crisis to innovate. There’s clearly capability to shape our NHS for the better and we should be proactive in making things easier and more efficient, which ultimately benefits patients.

What do you think lies in the future for UK ophthalmology?

We need to free up NHS capacity to treat more patients, faster. The use of people’s health data, often referred to as ‘Big Data’, will play a significant part in helping to solve current issues, such as people waiting too long between diagnosis of an eye condition and treatment, during which time their sight deteriorates, and they are left to worry about the future both for themselves and their loved ones.

By collecting and analysing data on a large scale, doctors will be able to monitor patients remotely and prioritise people who need care most urgently, as well as providing people with reassurance that their condition is being managed. We are already able to collect vast amounts of data to shape care, but the challenge is honing in on the right data and making sure technology is accessible for all.

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

Partnerships between pharma and the NHS are absolutely crucial towards achieving better outcomes for ophthalmology patients. At Roche, we’ve already got a great partnership with Moorfields Eye Hospital, working together on an app to monitor patients remotely by testing their vision twice a day. Their insights into what patients need is critical in developing the app.

Ophthalmology is an area where clinical trial settings and assumptions about the often older demographic of patients don’t always hold true in the real world. Pharma needs those real-life insights and information to make sure we’re taking the right approach to developing and delivering treatment.

What are your passions outside of work?

My young daughter has kept my wife and I busy for the past couple of years, but in between taking her to playgrounds and birthday parties, I try to squeeze in a little squash and mentoring like-minded people starting out in business. I’ve been fortunate to be part of the Virgin start-up mentoring team, helping young entrepreneurs build and scale their businesses.

What keeps you awake at night?

Other than the stress of the building work to renovate our new home, and sometimes my two-year-old, it’s the length of NHS waiting lists. Half of NHS patients for ophthalmology services are waiting 11 or more weeks to start treatment and some hospital patients in England were waiting up to 67 weeks for their treatment in May this year.
We know this is the case across many specialities post-COVID.

The difference with eye health (and the most frustrating thing) is that the solution is there already – NHS organisations themselves have suggested solutions, technology exists to relieve pressure and the system of care outside the hospital is all set up – we just need to make sure it’s better joined up and patients are ready for more integrated care. This is crucial for eye disorders, which can in some cases deteriorate from first symptoms to some irreversible loss of vision in days, if untreated.