Over the past nine months, the UK has experienced the initial disruption of the first wave of COVID-19, the subsequent emergence from lockdown, only to be followed by a second wave that is now challenging countries in the northern hemisphere and in Latin America. With stringent lockdown measures remaining in place, infection levels are beginning to drop again, and in the UK, there is light at the end of the tunnel with the ambition to deliver a vaccine to the most vulnerable groups in the population by Easter. The entire healthcare sector has experienced a whirlwind of challenges this year, but now that we are close to a tangible exit strategy from COVID-19, what will the priorities of the NHS and of the life sciences industry be looking forward?
To answer this question, we held 38 interviews with Chief Executives and senior leaders in the NHS and 19 with General Managers and leaders in the life sciences industry. This article reflects their perspectives on the key priorities for the future, taking into account the significant changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our findings have revealed that the shared experience of COVID-19, and the unprecedented and extraordinary collaboration and innovation that resulted from that, have revealed a myriad of common interests between the life sciences industry and the NHS, together with some major opportunities for deeper and more productive collaboration.
The NHS Long Term Plan remains a priority with a drive to strengthen the workforce and create Integrated Care Systems (ICSs). Some additional priorities emerged from our discussions with NHS leaders, and in light of COVID-19, such as a focus on recovering performance in access to services and reducing waiting lists, especially in cancer, enabled by strengthening provider collaboratives.
The life science industry’s agenda includes repositioning its relationships with the government and the NHS, to tackle key disease areas together and spread innovation. The industry’s concerns about the way the NHS assesses value and manages access remain and although the consultation on changes to NICE’s methods holds open the prospect for some of the changes that the industry has been hoping for, it will not address all of them. The life sciences industry needs to find new operating models that embrace the shift in healthcare delivery stimulated by COVID-19 and find the right approach for a new business model in the UK.
The response to COVID-19 has created a shared ambition for the NHS and the life sciences industry and has inspired closer partnerships and a greater degree of trust, exemplified by the race to finding a successful vaccine. There are opportunities to use this increased trust to improve collaboration and to promote the spread of innovation. However, there is a risk that once the imperative of tackling COVID has passed, working relationships will resume old patterns. The challenge going forward is to capture and retain these recent changes as much as possible.
The vaccine is an obvious priority at the moment, as it allows for the escape from lockdown. However, beyond that, and assuming there is successful delivery of the vaccine to the population, what other opportunities are there for the NHS and the life sciences industry to work together?
Taking the priorities above and the impact of COVID into account, our report explores the opportunities for the life sciences industry to work with the NHS for mutual gain. In particular, we see significant prospects for collaboration on leading pathway innovation, addressing health inequalities, restarting clinical trials, and sharing data and analytics. These new ways of engaging will need to be informed by a new collaborative model, and will require the industry and the NHS to adjust their appetite for risk.
To take this forward, life science companies need to consider which of the identified opportunities appeal to them most and that they are best suited to support. Doing so requires considering how the burden of disease in the UK maps across their portfolio, reflecting on their current relationship with the NHS and identifying which of its priorities they are interested in. From this, companies will be able to set their own priorities and pathways towards a new business relationship with their main commercial partners in the UK.