United States

Here is a gripping report from this week’s ‘Adweek’ (based in New York) about the new marketing strategies being used by pharmaceutical companies.

Don’t be put off by the reference to ‘Obamacare.’ The story is equally applicable to the United Kingdom.  For it is essentially a tale about how disease is being re-packaged. Patient data is the new currency, social and digital media the marketplace.  Companies are no longer selling potions and pills but offering an all-round ‘service’ to patients and health professionals.

The speed with which the private sector can move in this way is dizzying (I thought I was doing well this morning by getting someone to agree some terms of reference!).  The sums of money at their disposal, mind-boggling.  In fact, the implications of what is happening can feel overwhelming.  So much so that it is easy, all too easy, to put on one’s ‘Blockbuster’ voiceover just to up the threatening atmosphere.  Yet who isn’t chilled to the bone when a commentator can glibly say in print:

‘For years Lilly has owned diabetes.’

Has anyone told people with diabetes and their families this?

I am sure that many patient advocates will be worried by the scale and speed by which these new approaches are heading our way.  But we seem to be in a collective state of un-readiness for this latest chapter in the marketization of health or selling sickness.  Or are we just complicit?  Either way it makes the work of organisations such as ‘Selling Sickness’ or Sense about Science as well as advocates such as Margaret McCartney  who are calling attention to these trends, all the more important.

How will patients be able to source independent advice when the market is smothered by ‘Trojan horse websites’ or apps backed by pharmaceutical companies? How will they be able to identify truths amidst this morass? Can regulators realistically be expected ‘protect and promote’ the public interest in the digital age using the same carrot and stick approaches that have failed in the past?  We have barely begun to think through the consequences.  Let alone the solutions.  And yes, these have to involve the companies themselves.

The danger is that we continue with our obsessions about things like the best model for lay reviewing when such bigger changes are afoot; we can only stay entrenched in land wars about whether something is public involvement versus participation versus engagement for so long surely?  Let’s not allow ourselves to become so tamed within our own boundaries that we lose the art of thinking beyond them and tackling new challenges?  Otherwise it will all be over when we finally do wake up.

In the meantime, we should remember, there’s no such thing as a free app….

Community-based Participatory Research: Unlocking the potential – 25th September in Bristol, 14.30-16.00.

Dr Ann-Gel Palermo is an experienced community activist researcher, involved with numerous organisations, local and federal committees in the USA concerned with public health and health disparities. She is chair of the Harlem Community & Academic Partnership (HCAP) which is a New York based partnership of community residents and representatives from community based, public health and academic organisations, with a community-driven and action-oriented approach to health research and health policy based on the social determinants of health. A seasoned community partner, Ann-Gel believes that community partners are uniquely positioned to enhance research work and to do it well.

Expect to hear about Ann-Gel’s work, engage in a discussion about CBPR and share ideas, questions and experiences of CBPR in the context of community-academic partnerships.

The free workshop is open to all, and is particularly relevant to health professionals, academics, community based organisations, students and volunteers who are interested in the role of CBPR, and how it can be effective in addressing social issues.

Details of Dr Ann-Gel Palermo’s event and the booking form are here

It was so humid when I stepped onto the sidewalk it felt like I was treading water. A threat of storms hung in the air, battleship colour clouds steaming slowly across the horizon. Far from here but menacing nonetheless.  An occasional spot of rain found its way on to the floor; a steady hum of a/c units was never far away- contented hives.

Taxis cleared their throats like Uncle Sam on his porch as they lumbered away from the side-walk. An occasional police car whooped its siren to move along a throng of other waiting cars. Porters hovered – there is always someone ready to help you in the US.

I had forgotten what it was like to arrive in an American city in the summer. How every sense is conquered.

Looking up I saw the signs asking us to join American Airlines in supporting the American Cancer Society in its 100th anniversary year. I remembered the interview in the in-flight magazine – between the CEOs of the two organisations.  It had a strong message of hope for cancer patients; particularly the graphic showing the percentage of people surfing cancer compared to 30 years ago. Research was key they said. But at the same time I couldn’t help ruminate how like business major charities and foundations have become in their ‘speak.’

As I sat in the back of the cab, Prince’s 1999 gave way to adverts on the radio. The first called for young male volunteers for a clinical trial being run at the hospital; reimbursement was possible it said. But, in reality, in tone and style it sounded no different to the next which was announcing a bargain sale if sofas. Or the next, advertising places at the local school. The cabbie himself had a small sign on his back seat asking us to support diabetes research? I saw a girl playing in the street and wondered if he had a daughter with diabetes and that’s why he was asking. I should have mentioned it.

Billboards and advertising hoardings buffeted and stretched for mile upon mile like one of their great freight trains. On each Freephone numbers spell out what they will say to you say on the phone. So an injury claims company’s number to call is: 1-800-HURT. I love that.

As the freeway rose on stilts heading into downtown, it curved around the new university hospital complex. ‘Health Sciences Centre’ said the sign on one of the tallest buildings and in letters the size of a small house.

Here’s a country not shy of talking about its science I thought.

This week, patients got a couple more options for finding out about clinical trials they can take part in.

Patientslikeme (which was launched in the United States a few years ago) has unveiled its new new clinical trials site which you can find here.   Patientslikeme is capturing a lot of attention here in the UK and one can see why.  Although this is still very much a first generation clinical trials site for so-called ‘willing patients,’ I like how it presents options and choices. Its interoperability with other parts of the Patientslikeme site (including the option to join other patients online) is also to be commended.  It is well worth a look.

Meanwhile in the States a new site called Reg4All has been launched by the non-profit Genetic Alliance (not to be confused with the UK’s own Genetic Alliance).  This one’s a register, inviting you to join others online and share as much as your personal health information as you so wish, to ‘help spark health innovation for all.’  It’s interesting how heavily they plug patient confidentiality with the privacy controls reported as being ‘unprecedented.’  Other than not signing-up at all of course.

Don’t forget there is also the Government’s very own UK Clinical Trials Gateway (UKCTG) whose future development I am very involved in, as well as ClinicalResearch.com,  TrialReach, HealthUnlocked, YourTreatmentChoices .  Funny how almost all of these sites miss out the spaces between the words in their titles isn’t it?  I wonder what that is all about.

 

Anyway, the market of organisations competing for the attention of patients entering clinical trials gets busier by the day.  This seems a healthy thing to me on the one hand.  On the other, I feel patients will want to see a ‘coming together’ at some point.  Although not necessarily in the way that you might assume; it might take many forms in fact.

Agreement on some common principles and standards for how to operate as in the manner of a learning health system (there are some interesting precedents in the US for this with respect to data use)? Partnership, merger or co-operation?  Perhaps formal regulation (by the Health Research Authority)?  But, most of all, integration with their care and treatment in the NHS and how this is provided.  There will also be a growing demand public involvement in how they work; more than any of the above providers can currently demonstrate.  Also,demands for reassurances over the ‘patient experience,’ with the AllTrials agenda just the tip of the iceberg in how I predict people will increasingly set higher expectations with clinical trial providers, and those who recruit on their behalf, before signing the consent form.

Finally, here is a brief interview with Scotland’s Chief Scientist, Dr Andrew Morris.  He talks about the importance of research being integrated into NHS care and treatment if we are to grow cohorts of patients who are active in research and the building of systems that enables that.  He references the well-known DART initiative in Scotland involving 7000+ people with diabetes.

I’m off to watch the rugby now.

So here’s my unsubstantiated personal theory.

It is that one of the root causes of the problems besetting today’s NHS’ is our failure to pay proper heed to the growing crisis in accountability and responsibility that has been a feature of our increasingly complex health system over the last seventy years.  From almost the day that the NHS was born in the arms of a post-war nation, we have shown a lack of courage towards involving the public appropriately in the maturation of the service.  In this vacuum, the evolution of the health service has been driven as much by unchecked romanticism (think of the Olympics ceremony) as anything else.  Ideology has stymied the pragmatism that was needed to meet successive challenges.  These challenges only get more daunting and difficult the more we delay.  In my view, we can only resolve them by reforming its corporate governance so that patients and the public are involved in the running of the NHS from top to bottom.

With that in mind, that’s why I tweeted yesterday in support of the idea going before the NHS Commissioning Board to explore the idea of a citizen and community assembly (NHS Civil Society Assembly).  You can find out more details about the proposal being considered at the Board’s meeting on Thursday 28th February in Manchester (you can register to attend) here (see Item 4).  It’s a start.

*      *       *

The Guardian has posted its round-up of the on-line chat that I and others took part in regarding patient feedback in the NHS.  The conversation ranged far and wide with little focus but it was interesting nonetheless. The ‘Francis report’ was published the day after and I seem to recall someone somewhere tweeting that patient feedback would be the source of trust in the NHS.  Seemed a faintly overblown and risky claim to make.  Ensuring that people can give their feedback and know that their concerns will be taken up is critical.  But it will take more than this to restore people’s faith in the service.

*         *          *

Rare Disease Day is coming up later this week on 28th February (see Rare Disease UK website), so it seems worth pointing to several recent news items that have focused on efforts to bring about greater flexibility in how we do clinical trials.  All with the intent of getting new treatments to people faster.  First, this from the USA where the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) is talking about approving so-called  ‘Breakthrough’ therapies after only a limited number of research studies.

Closer to home you may have picked up on the Empower: Access to Medicines campaign including e-petition to the UK Government which, as of today, has 711 signatures.  Les Halpin, who has MND and is one of the founder’s of ‘Empower’ was interviewed on the ‘Today’ programme in a curious piece which seemed to mash-up several issues: the right of people to choose to receive treatment with untried medicines (see also Lord Saatchi’s Bill in the House of Lords right now); how regulation is slowing up medicines development and; the problems with the EU Clinical Trials Directive.  The discussion is important but so is clarity of purpose, motivation not to mention the solution.

Talking of regulation, if you check out the Health Research Authority (HRA) website and the presentations from its recent ‘stakeholder forum’  you’ll see there is an update on its public involvement activities including the Sciencewise project looking at public attitudes to health research regulation.  I imagine we will see the results in late Spring and they should be fascinating.   Plaudits to the HRA for taking up the challenge to improve the evidence on what the public think in this area.

*      *        *

And in other news, the NIHR School for Social Care Research has published the scoping review of ‘User Controlled Research’ by Peter Beresford and Suzy Croft.  A must read.  And finally, this looks wonderful, a new charity devoted to improving mental health research through the involvement of service users – ‘The McPin Foundation.’  Hopefully I will have cause to write at greater length about them in the near future.

Current Controlled Trials (CCT), which aims ‘to increase the availability, and promote the exchange, of information
about ongoing randomised controlled trials worldwide,’ has appointed a new advisory board to help it in its work.  Other than yours truly, the Board includes Ben Goldacre and Paul Wicks (PatientsLikeMe) among its members, and is drawing on international expertise as well.

This is a really impressive operation with real ambitions to innovate and improve the information on trials that is available to professionals and the public.  So you might want to bookmark their blog or become a follower to stay up-to-date with new developments.

I feel rather honoured to have been asked to join and am very excited about getting down to work.