The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into question how we approach care across multiple disease areas in the future. But what does this mean in cancer? Hear from Bristol Myers Squibb’s (BMS) Executive Medical Director, Hubert Bland, who believes that in order to advance in cancer care, we must learn from the COVID-19 response and adopt a collaborative approach across the healthcare industry.

Over the last year, we have seen the strength and impact of clinical research, with the development of multiple COVID-19 vaccinations demonstrating how scientific collaboration can potentially tackle even the greatest challenges. We’ve also experienced the power of a pandemic, which has forced the healthcare industry to adopt flexible approaches to accelerate programmes that provide care fit for purpose under extreme pressure.

For cancer especially, the pandemic has put the future of care in the spotlight with more than 650,000 people experiencing disruption to their cancer treatment or care, approximately 50,000 missing diagnoses of cancer and research showing a significant drop in people seeing their GP and getting referred for cancer diagnostic tests in 2020.1 At BMS, we know that early diagnosis and symptom detection is essential in providing the correct treatment as early as possible to improve overall survival rates, but the impact of COVID-19 has compelled us to assess how we manage these challenges to improve the future of cancer care.

Beyond COVID-19, innovative medicines have improved how cancer is treated, with tailored and personalised treatments now available. There has been a clear and defined evolution in treatment options - from combinations of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy based on the location of the cancer to immuno-oncology treatments that can kick-start the body’s own immune system to target cancer. The use of traditional therapies has also changed, with neo-adjuvant and adjuvant treatments leveraging radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy before and after surgery.

We must learn from recent healthcare challenges to shape the future of cancer care

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of collaboration and how this is a pragmatic approach to optimise treatment and care. Pharmaceutical companies, the NHS, patient advocacy groups (PAGs) and charities have all demonstrated a clear shift towards an inclusive and community-focused approach to cancer. Collaborative disease awareness campaigns have elevated a stronger focus on the additional challenges patients face during and beyond treatment, including aftercare, spanning psychological, social and practical needs.

COVID-19 has influenced a behavioural shift in how we approach treatment and care, so it is my opinion that we should adopt this mindset to innovation and drive the UK’s holistic management of cancer care through collaboration and partnership.

The patient should be at the centre of every decision, and have a say in that decision

We understand that cancer patients and their support networks have been dependent on healthcare professionals to guide them, provide them with advice and ultimately carry out their agreed treatment plan. But when given an all clear, that support may drop away. It is at this point where PAGs and pharmaceutical companies are beginning to work in tandem to ensure patients continue to feel supported beyond direct medical care.

Various post-treatment programmes have been launched in recent years by PAGs in partnership with pharmaceutical companies, which focus on areas such as reintegrating people into society; supporting those returning to work following a long absence; or enabling those who have been through treatment to continue looking after their physical and mental wellbeing.

At BMS, we know that cancer can have a relentless grasp on many parts of a patient’s life and, in recent years, have worked in collaboration with PAGs to raise awareness of different challenges in cancer:

Head and Neck Cancer:

  • Through our work to better understand the patient experience after being diagnosed with Head and Neck Cancer, in collaboration with The Swallows and The Mouth Cancer Foundation in 2019, we identified several challenges and considerations for those diagnosed, which are published in the Beyond Clinical Outcomes report.
  • These findings highlight a number of daily physical, emotional and psychological challenges faced by those with Head and Neck Cancer - areas that we can look to address, beyond a clinical setting.

Melanoma:

  • In 2018 – 2019, we were able to work with three key Melanoma patient groups and a professional organisation to identify unmet needs through a survey of more than 100 Melanoma patients.
  • Findings from the survey highlighted opportunities where further support could be provided.
  • This collaboration informed the Melanoma Patients Matter policy report, which provided recommendations for NHS and policy decision-makers to ensure all Melanoma patients received the information and support they needed, and to support healthcare professionals in being able to provide this.

Because there is more to do

With the growing burden of cancer due to longer waiting times for initial diagnosis, halts for ongoing treatment and restricted access to medication, intensified by the impact of the pandemic, we understand that there are tough times ahead to ensure support is continuous, relevant, and beneficial to the whole cancer community.

We appreciate that patient groups are fundamental in alleviating these concerns and it is crucial that we keep this support alive, to benefit patients. One approach to help support these groups and their patients’ from BMS, was the launch of the COVID Support Grant Programme in 2020, which has so far contributed over £2m in the form of grants and donations to NHS cancer services, charities and patient groups affected by COVID-19 across the UK and Ireland.2 Through this programme, BMS hopes that funding has allowed these organisations to continue to maintain, or expand, their capacity for their work, whether that is patient support or research.

Collaboration is key

The future of cancer care cannot be transactional; the pharmaceutical industry, patient organisations, charities and the NHS must continue to work together to treat more than just a patient’s cancer. COVID-19 has shown how collaboration can be a positive and successful approach in healthcare innovation, demonstrating the value of a partnership mindset.

It is important that we carry this mindset forward, implementing the learnings from the pandemic after the dust has settled, to ensure that we continue to see patients as more than their cancer and provide care accordingly.

ONC-GB-2100025
April 2021

Author: Hubert Bland, Executive Medical Director, UK and Ireland, Bristol Myers Squibb

Created and funded by Bristol Myers Squibb

References

1 Macmillan, The Forgotten ‘C’? The impact of COVID-19 on cancer care. 2020. Available at: https://www.macmillan.org.uk/assets/forgotten-c-impact-of-covid-19-on-cancer-care.pdf Accessed April 2021.

2 BMS Data on File