How pharma can help improve cancer treatment in Japan
Andrew Tolve reports on how pharma firms are working to support and inform Japanese cancer patients
Despite steady drug innovation in oncology in the past decade, patients continue to struggle with cancer treatment in Japan. The rise of the Internet has provided patients with easy access to information about cancer, but figuring out which information is reliable and which is hyperbolic or unfounded is difficult.
A communication gap between physicians and patients often results and can lead to dissatisfaction with treatment. “The flood of groundless medical information on the Internet and the non-deliverability of adequate information are together causing patient anxiety and distrust,” says Susumu Adachi, senior director, oncology business unit at Eli Lilly Japan.
Likewise, rising medical costs can prove prohibitive for cancer patients. Although Japan’s universal healthcoverage mitigates expenses, the system is mired in delays, and patients often wait months for support to kick in. Furthermore, medical oncologists are understaffed, which leads to less time available for individual patients, which in turn creates less personalized care.
“Patient advocacy is still an area that needs to develop,” says Andreas Tsukada, business unit head of oncology at Merck Serono Japan. “Consequently, doctors tend to not pay enough attention to patient psychology and challenges they face.” Both Adachi and Tsukada believe that pharma companies in Japan can and have a responsibility to help.
Filling the information gap
One reason the Internet is so popular is because it gives the impression of limitless supply. If patients want to know more, they simply do another search or open another website and keep on reading. Doctors, on the other hand, have a limited time they can devote to a single patient. It’s thus critical that pharma companies provide additional resources through websites, leaflets, and educational outreach.
These resources need to be thorough and transparent about patient options, full treatment costs, and side effects to drugs. They can also explain about programs for relieving the burden of high medical costs so as to remove patient anxieties.
“It is necessary for pharmaceutical companies and the society as a whole to take a posture of assisting patients and their supporters,” says Adachi. “At our company, apart from pursuing profit as a single company, we think that we must deliver correct information even about diseases for which our drugs are not indicated.” In addition to leaflets, Eli Lilly Japan has created the website “Cancer Information Town” for this purpose.
The value of partnership
As more stakeholders enter the healthcare arena, pharma can leverage more resources to build value for patients. Patient advocacy groups and nonprofits are a good place to start.
Eli Lilly Japan, for instance, has partnered with the Tokyo-based nonprofit Pancreatic Cancer Action Network to create Japan’s “Purple Ribbon Caravan,”which emphasizes the importance of early discovery and treatment for the improvement of pancreatic cancer prognosis. Merck Serono Japan has partnered with Cancer Net Japan to disseminate information and understanding through the “Blue Ribbon Caravan” to support colorectal cancer patients and their families.
Pharma companies can also assist caregivers with special leaflets and can supply nurses with resources to improve patient care. With physicians understaffed and overworked, nurses become a critical player in delivering treatment and support to patients.
But it is not only information patients that patients want. Often, patients’ priorities and unmet needs are forgotten. In its recent pan-European survey, Merck Serono Japan learned a lot from the insights and struggles of head and neck cancer patients. Through such understanding, the European Head and Neck Society, supported by Merck Serono, now plans to improve head and neck cancer education, awareness and support.
Furthermore, pharma can partner with physicians themselves to expose them to other treatment methods. Overseas practice sharing is one way to accomplish this. “There is much value [we can create] through multi-disciplinary teams, where doctors understand how to manage side effects and adverse events, which they are not used to in the past,” says Tsukada. “Newer therapies using biologics have very different side effects profiles.”
Supporting continued innovation
While new anticancer drugs may contribute to the rising costs of cancer treatment, they’re also improving the efficacy of short- and long-term treatment. With cancer exacting such a high toll on Japanese lives—cancer strikes one in two Japanese citizens—pharma companies must continue to push the envelope.
This is especially true with the dawn of personalized oncology treatments so close on the horizon and with biomarkers already becoming a reality in trials and advanced treatments. “There are increasing studies and research that show that personalized therapies can really extend a patient’s overall survival and reduce unnecessary treatment costs and side effects,” says Tsukada. (For more on personalized medicine, see Personalized medicine: Lesson for Oncology and Personalized medicine: A kick-start for innovation?; for more on biomarkers, see Biomarkers and oncology forecasting: How to hit a moving target.)
At Lilly, the corporate philosophy of “Passion for Patients” requires all employees to form a team for the development and prompt delivery of innovative new drugs to patients. At the same time, the industry needs to embrace the fact that new drugs and treatments deliver new side effects that must be broadcast from the start and eliminated if possible. “It is necessary that we keep developing therapies to improve patient quality of life as well as to avoid adverse effects,” says Adachi.
Additionally, as treatments become more effective over the long-term, patients need more financial support to reap the full benefits. “While long-term survival is becoming possible, long-term treatment is becoming an issue because of the increasing burden due to medical costs,” says Adachi.
For more on personalized medicine in Japan, attend Oncology Japan 2011 on November 9-10 in Tokyo.
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