Historic, earth-shattering events test humanity’s resilience and creativity. Sometimes, they can even lead to new eras and new ways of helping more people — in ways that previously would have been unthinkable. Out of the Second World War’s need to care for countless injured soldiers and civilians alike, Britain’s National Health Service was born, giving millions of people in the UK access to free public healthcare for the first time.1 In South Korea, after a MERS outbreak ripped through the country in 2015, 48 health reforms were enacted — a sea change that made it better prepared for other episodes to come.2 Now, innovations in healthcare diagnostics can create similar momentous change.
Now is the time to explore how diagnostics can reassess itself and evolve for a future where it does more good. The world has woken up to how crucial testing is, but what more can be done, and what does that evolution look like? It’s time to re-evaluate, revitalise and re-explore for a brighter future of diagnostics.
This period can be a crucial pivot point to ask how we can revolutionise healthcare. The key is to start asking visionary questions. Or more specific ones, like “How can we eradicate hepatitis?” — a challenge Pakistan set itself in 2019, pledging to eliminate the disease by 2030.3 By shining a spotlight on a single mission, the stage is set for key stakeholders to come together, all working towards a unified goal.
One man with an enticing vision for what he calls "fearless life sciences" companies is Dr Amitabh Chandra. The professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School in the US is passionate about how innovation and vision can support diagnostic-powered healthcare. Part of that fearlessness involves not adding elements to innovations in diagnostics but taking away entirely the aspects that aren't fit for purpose.
For example, Dr Chandra notes, colonoscopy, a technology still in use today, was developed in 1969. “We are not treating colon cancer with medicines from 1969,” he says ruefully. “So why are we diagnosing using technology from 1969? What else do we do every day in our lives that [still] uses 1969 technology?”
In some cases, technology doesn’t need to evolve because it already fulfils its function perfectly. But in other cases, technology remains stagnant because the status quo is deemed good enough or too difficult to change. This mindset acts as a barrier to coming up with newer, better solutions. It’s time to take a bold look at the outdated systems and mindsets that can be improved. Only through the constant striving for more precise, practical testing will that improvement happen.
As precision testing (which reveals whether a drug will work on an individual patient) becomes more common, it can transform the patient experience, removing doubt and pointless spending on treatments that don't work. As Dr Chandra notes, "the non-response rate for some of the greatest oncology drugs known to man is quite high."
Figure out whether a drug is right for a person, and not only will you have wasted less money, he notes; “you will have less human suffering, because of the [often unpleasant] side effects of these drugs.”
We live in an era of ‘start-up thinking,’ where failure is an option. Failure is how you learn from mistakes and can ultimately drive to success. But this thinking has yet to permeate parts of the medical world fully. That has to change.
As Dr Chandra explains, medical companies and institutions need to rewire their thinking. The narrative now should be aiming to improve and revolutionise healthcare but "it's going to take a while. We haven't figured it out. We're going to make mistakes." He adds that further to the developments of companion diagnostics, companies will also need to start agreeing that “these drugs won’t work for all patients.”
That change of lens, where companies push the boundaries of what is possible, is what Dr Chandra sees as another mark of a fearless life sciences company. Organisations now have a chance to not just be imaginative. They can take the leap to think beyond simply treating diseases to preventing them.
To that end, companion and preventative diagnostics are spaces that represent new frontiers, separating cautious, siloed legacy companies from those who look to the future as open-minded explorers. A mindset of fearless curiosity, combined with traditional values like deep commitments to patients, are the keys to an exciting world of opportunities. Not just for the future of diagnostics, but for healthcare as a whole.
1The National Archives. Origins of the NHS. Retrieved from https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/alevelstudies/origins-nhs.htm
2Kim JH, An JAR, Oh SJJ, Oh J, Lee JK. Emerging COVID-19 success story: South Korea learned the lessons of MERS (2021). Our World in Data. Retrieved from https://ourworldindata.org/covid-exemplar-south-korea
3World Health Organization (2019). 15 million people affected with hepatitis B and C in Pakistan: Government announces ambitious plan to eliminate hepatitis. Retieved from https://www.who.int/news/item/28-07-2019-15-million-people-affected-with-hepatitis-b-and-c-in-pakistan-government-announces-ambitious-plan-to-eliminate-hepatitis
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