As the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic rages on, questions remain about how the virus is transmitted between people, how quickly it spreads and how contagious it is. But one thing is certain: The elderly and immunosuppressed patient populations, including those with cancer, are among the most at risk.
These patients need oncology manufacturers, healthcare providers and other stakeholders to ensure that they have continued access to care while minimizing exposure to the virus. Together, we can play a critical role in helping to improve and extend the lives of oncology patients. This should be our central focus today, knowing that it likely will change the way that we approach tomorrow and beyond.
Clearly we’re still in the process of understanding how COVID-19 will affect our most vulnerable patients, but China’s experience with the disease has given us some early indicators. A study published in The Lancet Oncology found that cancer patients have a 39% chance of a severe event vs. 8% for those without cancer. However, when looking only at those with late-stage disease or severe comorbidities, the circumstances are more dire: 31 out of 32 infected patients died, according to a study published in the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network .These findings should give oncology therapy manufacturers pause. After all, if more countries mirror the experience in China, a large group of cancer patients (including patients with advanced stage tumor or lung cancer, and those undergoing chemotherapy) could become infected by and succumb to COVID-19.
Cancer patients are already familiar with healthcare-related challenges, but the outbreak has brought a new intensity to some of those hurdles and, in some cases, layered on new ones. Patients that are currently being treated for cancer primarily are concerned about maintaining affordable access and avoiding infection. Newly diagnosed and later-line patients are worried about de-prioritized or delayed medical treatment when hospitals become overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases. There are ways that oncology manufacturers can help patients navigate these uncertain times. Here are a few ideas:
- Help patients avoid infection outside of the home. This patient population is mainly comprised of elderly and immunocompromised patients that typically need to travel for their oncology care. Oncology manufacturers can educate and provide resources that will enable patients to maintain access to care while minimizing the risk of infection.
- Assist patients as they navigate virtual communication channels. For some cancer patients, there will be fewer visits to their oncologists. Manufacturers should be thinking about ways to support patients as they make the switch to telehealth, many for the first time.
- Provide support to ensure that patients can afford their treatments. Financial toxicity is another patient concern that has taken on added significance during the current outbreak. For patients who have lost their jobs or are being forced to stay home without pay, the cost of a co-payment that was manageable just two weeks ago may no longer be affordable in the coming weeks or months. Manufacturers should rapidly implement additional support where possible for these patients to ensure continuity of care.
Of course, these are just a few ways that manufacturers can provide patient support. Other ideas include helping caregivers maintain a safe and virus-free environment for immunocompromised patients and providing mental health resources to minimize the impact of social distancing. Companies that partner with and commit to helping patients through this difficult time will have the greatest positive impact.
Patients aren’t the only ones feeling pressure: Healthcare systems’ resources are increasingly strained by the COVID-19 outbreak, and that’s trickling down to oncologists. As a result, manufacturers are struggling with how—or if—to engage with HCPs during this time. Face-to-face rep interactions are off the table for the time being. And non-personal interactions need to be sensitive to the reality that some oncologists may be dealing with more critical matters related to COVID-19.
Still, there is early evidence to suggest that many oncologists are primarily focused on continuing to support their oncology patients. And many are making new risk assessments of their treatment choices to limit immunosuppression or to delay “elective” treatments or adjuvant therapies, especially when the benefits are less certain.
This means that oncology manufacturers have an important role to play, now more than ever, in arming oncologists with the knowledge they need to make the best decisions for their patients. Here are a few areas that require clear and effective communication from oncology manufacturers:
- Route of administration: We’re already hearing anecdotes from our clients that suggest an increase in demand for oral oncology therapies during the past few weeks. Oral therapies not only protect patients from exposure to COVID-19 while in transit to or during visits to their oncologists, but they also reduce the burden of resources needed to administer a therapy, which means more protective gear will be available for COVID-19-related care.
- Tolerability: Oncologists are already limiting the use of chemotherapies in reaction to COVID-19. Therapies that offer better tolerability further reduce the need for office visits, but more importantly, they leave the patient’s immune system in better shape to ward off infection.
- Dosing: For therapies that do require an in-office infusion, dosing frequency also is an important consideration, with therapies that offer less-frequent dosing having a significant advantage during the outbreak.
With all that’s happening, figuring out how to deliver important information to customers is one of the greatest challenges. Many of our clients are tapping their resources to adapt content and leverage digital channels like remote detailing to meaningfully engage their customers and help their patients.
During times like these, it’s hard not to think of the lessons we might learn from the outbreak and how the healthcare ecosystem might permanently shift as a result. The data we collect from oncology patients that contract COVID-19 will be important to inform treatment plans in potential future outbreaks. In the US, anonymized patient claims data and patient EMR data should soon start to capture information that can be used to analyze mortality rates for specific tumor types and patient cohorts. Public agencies are providing free data resources like the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset to encourage researchers to develop insights via AI and other tech tools about the disease progression.
In the long term, oncology manufacturers will need to reevaluate planned investments, reassess launch strategies for new indications and drugs, and take a second look at the feasibility and timelines of future clinical trials. While firms should conduct ongoing assessments of realistic impact scenarios for near-, medium- and long-term forecasts as more data starts becoming available, we believe that helping patients and providers navigate the pandemic needs to be today’s primary focus.
As the entire world adapts to the new realities of COVID-19, there is still a lot of uncertainty. That underscores the important role that oncology manufacturers can play in helping to improve and extend the lives of oncology patients. Now is the time to bring a true customer-centric mindset to all patient and provider interactions. The clock is ticking: Are you in?