With a combined annual turnover of £50 billion, R&D spend of £5 billion, 4,000 companies and supporting 160,000 jobs, the life sciences sector is a major component of the UK economy. But because the sector supports the health needs of patients across the country and beyond, its importance is magnified.
The Prime Minister’s speech and publication of a life sciences package today marks this government’s effort to support areas of both current and potential strength for the UK – scientific research capacity and the pharmaceutical, medical technology, diagnostics and biotech industries. To maximise their collective potential, these strengths will then need to be harnessed better to the scale and resources of the NHS. Much of this is easy to describe in theory but very hard to implement in practice. The value of today’s announcements will be judged in future years by how they have been implemented and how they have made a difference to the growth of the sector and to patients’ lives.
A life sciences ‘ecosystem’
The Strategy for UK Life Sciences sets out the broad pillars of the approach for supporting the life sciences ‘ecosystem’ – a use of language which may make some (justifiably) wince.
This overarching approach demonstrates recognition of the interdependency between industry, academia, the public sector and the NHS and the need to support this to improve quality in healthcare, achieve better health outcomes, save resources and encourage exports and inward investment.
Looking at the strategy and the NHS Chief Executive Innovation Review Innovation Health and Wealth: accelerating adoption and diffusion in the NHS published today there are many familiar echoes of previous initiatives. Examining how to deliver innovation, support research, attract investment into the sector and support growth all build on a heritage of recent work: the Office of Life Sciences and its 2009 Blueprint; Sir David Cooksey’s Biosciences 2015 refresh and earlier work; and Sir Ian Kennedy’s review of innovation and value in health technologies.
Given the current economic realities and mood, however, this government always needed to revisit the strategy for a major sector that it recognises can support and lead economic growth. The UK needs a new money-making sector but one that doesn’t go bust. It also needs one that not only brings benefits to its producers i.e. industry, but also benefits to consumers or patients. In order to ‘sell’ this strategy there is a fine line for the Government to tread between the two.
Trailed as radical and new, today’s announcements include a combination of new initiatives and areas of focus, a rejuvenation of existing ones, a recast of current practices and an abandonment of others. In truth, several of the ideas have been floated before but the priority will be to make these proposals happen this time.
“…simply doing more of what we have always done is no longer an option…”
NHS Chief Executive, Sir David Nicholson has produced a review which recognises the need “to do things differently”. The review, led in practice by Sir Ian Carruthers, Chief Executive of NHS South of England, is sensitive to those levers to drive change which matter in the NHS. Commitments have been announced to align financial, operational and performance incentives in the NHS to support the adoption and diffusion of innovation. These will – if devised well – lead to significant change in services and practice – as will work to adjust or explore tariffs in areas such as diagnostic testing and telemedicine. In the changing NHS, money matters more and more at the micro level.
Rapid action needed to make a difference to patients
Many laudable measures have been announced today – notably the early access scheme to accelerate patients’ ability to access new medicines by fast tracking them through clinical trials stages – subject to regulatory approval. Removing barriers to access and incentivising the use of more innovative treatments and technology should allow healthcare professionals to deliver more effective and timely interventions.
To accelerate the use of innovative technologies to benefit patients and the NHS, tangible and realistic proposals were needed. Systems and practices in the NHS have sometimes hampered the introduction of innovative solutions. Many of the commitments announced today could – if implemented properly – lead to a step-change in how patients access treatments and how healthcare industries innovate.
Today’s announcements need to be followed by rapid action to agree next steps and responsibilities. All with a stake in the life sciences sector – not only industry, but government, clinicians, the NHS and the scientific community – will need to invest time, expertise and knowledge to build on the proposed actions and develop detailed policies for implementation and turn vision into reality.