Though there has been mistrust on both sides for years, the National Health Service and the pharmaceutical industry have to embrace joint working partnerships and quickly, now that the cash cow has dried up.

This was the key message coming out of a meeting held at the Reebok Stadium in Bolton this week. The event, Innovation Through Partnership: The QIPP (Quality, Innovation, Productivity and Prevention) Challenge, was chaired by Peter Rowe, national medicines QIPP work stream lead, who said that every year, “there has been new money but this year we’ve got what we’ve got. There is no new money”.

Given this situation, cash needs to be found within the system and the NHS has arrived at “a defining moment”, Mr Rowe added. “It requires us all to change our behaviour,” he said, whereby industry and the NHS can pool resources, skills and experience to provide more effective treatment for patients.

A number of joint working projects were highlighted at the Bolton event, including a stop smoking project in Chorley between Pfizer and NHS Central Lancashire. The drugs giant laid out a business plan in December 2008, followed by health audits, team workshops and a creative meeting which led to the ‘Road to Success’ campaign launched in January 2010.

The collaboration is bearing fruit and Chorley saw a 30% rise in referrals three weeks after launch. Tracy Murdoch, clinical coordinator for NHS Central Lancashire, said the project has helped with staff development, increased confidence and provided a better business focus, while the advantages for Pfizer are that it is seen as the provider of choice, helps the firm when approaching other primary care trusts and ultimately leads to more medicines being used in accordance with best practice.

Ms Murdoch told PharmaTimes that there was initially some opposition to working so closely with big pharma but “I needed to know at the start what was in it for Pfizer”. Once that was clarified, the partnership worked well and the stop smoking scheme proved to be “faster, easier and more effective” due to joint working.

Other collaborations discussed at the meeting included a pact with GlaxoSmithKline and the StHealth Consortium (part of the NHS Halton & St Helens PCT) for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. This has proved to be particularly successful which has seen a 33% reduction in hospital admissions for the first quarter of 2010. The vast majority of the projects discussed at the Bolton event are loose collaborations without a legal framework but the COPD pact does follow those guidelines.

That is one of the reasons it works well, said Helen Philpot, GSK business manager for the North West. She added that this makes the StHealth pact "a pure joint working partnership" that involves "a 50-50 commitment" in terms of resources and energy. "It is not just about cash," she added.

Another project highlighted was a diabetes outreach programme set up in Blackburn and Darwen by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and the NHS. The latter has seen major drugmakers, including Novo Nordisk, Takeda, Sanofi-Aventis, Lilly and MSD, set up a steering committee and a subsequent business development agenda. Along with the NHS, they identified clusters that have been failed by present approaches and set up educational meetings with mosque leaders (a sizeable percentage of the area is Muslim) to get them involved.

All the presentations (Eisai, Sanofi and Servier also outlined projects) impressed and there was a sense at the meeting that the suspicions that have existed on each side of the industry/NHS barrier are ebbing away, slowly but surely. One of the attendees summed up the mood by saying that involvement in these joint working projects has led to the development of “mutual trust, understanding and respect”.