Innovation is key to the future of the National Health Service and the life sciences industry is key to innovation, but a change of mindset is required on both sides to enable real progress.

Both the National Health Service and the life sciences industry in the UK are facing huge challenges over the coming years, but the focus must remain on quality and innovation to drive improvements and weather the storm, was a key message from Lord Ara Darzi at a EURO RSCG LIFE meeting in London last week.

According to Darzi, “innovation has the solutions to all the problems that we have at the moment”, but the problem is how to best exploit it. Both Whitehall and the NHS view innovation as expensive and an added cost. “This alarms me because if you go to any other sector, they take innovation not because they are gizmo junkies, but because they know it improves quality and also reduces cost and improves access”.

Reducing cost and improving access is what innovation is all about, “but in healthcare we don’t see it that way, its always been seen as an added cost”, Darzi said. He believes that one reason for this, from the NHS’ perspective at least, is that older services are not decommissioned when new ones are taken up, so the bill keeps growing.

“The biggest challenge that we have in the NHS now is to start thinking about what it is that we are doing that it ineffective, that we should not be doing because there is no evidence to support it. You can generate from that, I have no doubt, a significant amount of money”, which may help to encourage greater uptake of innovation and thereby spur service improvements.

But innovation is not just the solution to our health system, it also makes huge contributions to our economy, Darzi stressed. “That’s another thing that people in the NHS don’t think about. What [the industry] comes up with, the innovations and the inventions and the intellectual property, has a huge, huge impact on our economy”.

With 4,000 companies, 143,000 employees and £30 billion turnover the life sciences industry is a certainly a significant contributor to this economy. “Innovation doesn’t just improve health, it actually has an economic impact”, and “I think we need to align these two things in our policy thinking when we are dealing with senior policy makers and also with government ministers,” Darzi noted.

The technology and some of the innovations that come out of the sector have added 10 years to the life expectancy of a patient in this country over the last 60 years, and the effect of this is that R&D emphasis has already shifted to becoming increasingly focused on developing medicines that improve the quality of life for an ageing population.

However, despite a growing investment in R&D, the size of pipelines and the number of new drugs coming on to the market is waning, and this gap must be filled. According to Darzi, the industry needs to start thinking about its business model. “You need to start thinking about what is the business model for your new pipeline of innovation…I think the opportunity is a change in mindset”. All patients are different, and we need to move towards a more differentiated approach to medicine, ie personalised medicine, he said.

Molecular diagnostics promise
Molecular diagnostics is an area that he thinks will have the biggest promise in really changing medicine from intuitive to much more precise diagnostics, which, in turn will lead to more precise therapeutics and better use of medicines. “More investment in molecular diagnostics outside the current business model is I have no doubt, the revival of pharma and the growth that we might see in years to come, [and] that will have a serious impact on the way we deliver healthcare including the NHS”, Darzi said.

Once the molecular diagnostic has been developed, actual care could shift from big (and expensive) tertiary providers into local providers, into elective treatment centres, into local health centres, or even home care, making the whole system more efficient.

The key to really making innovation work for the NHS is to spend the money available more effectively, and this, he says, can be achieved through pre-commercial procurement - with more intelligence between pharma, healthcare providers and procurement agencies so that everyone is aware of a new blockbuster coming up for launch well in advance - and more innovative procurement, which, he said, can be achieved through partnerships with the industry, to get the Service using the best of what’s on offer and thereby drive improvements to efficiency and patient care.