How Can Industry Help Patient Groups Survive An Unprecedented Threat?

Jonathon Sheppard and Alison Dunlop

As the nation unites in the fight against COVID-19, patient groups are rapidly adapting services and the fundamental way they operate as they face a triple threat to survival. Two of MHP’s leading patient advocacy specialists explore how the role of industry remains critical in protecting the future of patient communities as charities navigate such an unchartered environment.

These are unprecedented times. As the nation unites in the fight against COVID-19, patient groups are rapidly adapting services – and the very way they function – as they face a triple threat to survival. Charities are seeing a significant drop in funding as charity shops are closed and fundraising events have been postponed. At the same time, they are being incentivised to furlough teams. But, a surge in patient demand for critical services and information is placing an unsustainable drain on resources. Patients need support now more than ever before and, without external intervention, many organisations in the charity sector will struggle to survive the long term impact of the coronavirus.

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, only yesterday (8 April) announced a new £750m funding package, having been pressed by the charity sector since the pandemic first unfolded. With £360m directly allocated by government departments and £370m ringfenced for smaller local charities, it is undoubtedly a welcome shot in the arm for the sector.

However, the role of industry also remains so critical – arguably never greater – to protecting the future of patient communities, as charities navigate such an unchartered environment. The Chancellor himself recognised the Government’s inability to match every ‘lost pound’ and funding is likely to be prioritised for ‘front-line’ organisations, particularly within areas such as financial advice and food delivery. Now is therefore the time for industry to accelerate vital targeted resources, providing extended services that are integral to maintaining patient outcomes during this period.

Inevitably, there is no ’one size fits all’ solution. Patient services vary considerably across organisations, regions and conditions and so too will the support that these groups require. It’s essential to listen to the concerns of charities and fully understand the challenges experienced from the perspective of their respective population. This is particularly vital when it comes to patients in high risk groups who realise that forgoing treatment could impact on their prognosis. These patients have to balance the need for hospital visits for life saving treatment, alongside the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Listening to the needs of patient groups will enable industry to identify the priorities that can make the difference, beyond financial investment alone.

Firstly, a ‘digital first’ approach is increasingly paramount as patient groups strive to provide fully integrated online advice and support to improve the quality and efficiency of patient care. Many pharma companies have developed digital platforms and services in recent years to support patient engagement and disease management. Surely now is the time to truly work in partnership, sharing knowledge of and access to these digital platforms, introducing new models of care aimed at increasing patient/HCP access and support.

Digital integration of services is just one of many areas where joint partnerships could make the difference. A period of prolonged self isolation has inevitably resulted in a dramatic increase in patients requiring an ‘in person’ service. Charities have received overwhelming numbers of calls from patients seeking critical advice, placing an unsustainable strain on nurse led helplines.

Industry can help to alleviate these pressures at a grass roots level.

Seconding key employees to charity partners for an agreed number of hours during this period for example will enable patient groups to redirect vital expertise, ensuring that patients continue to access the qualified support and advice they need at this time.

Supporting charities with ‘wrap around’ and ‘beyond the pill’ services, as companies increasingly position themselves as a ‘healthcare’ or indeed ‘technology’ firms, will also help to strengthen the essential resources being accessed by patient communities. Several industry initiatives are already underway, with pharma companies pooling skills, experience and resources in areas such as telephone triage and home delivery. But, more needs to be done to explore new integrated solutions to providing patient care during these unprecedented times.

While the immediate focus for the months to come will centre on responding to the coronavirus outbreak, it is important to recognise how the current situation may also lead to the late or delayed presentation of non-COVID-19 cases as patients actively defer healthcare advice or treatment. This will lead to a potential ‘surge’ in patient demand later down the line where, again, the role of charity and industry partnerships will be tested and learnings from ‘today’ can be brought to the fore.

Ultimately, this is a time for collaboration. A time to strengthen relationships. A time where industry can be instrumental in ensuring patients continue to have access to acute services and resources during this uncertain period. Companies that provide the right support now will be changing the shape of integrated charity partnerships for the future.