Home > Health > Expert Contributor

Innovation or Inaccessibility: The Dilemma of Modern Medicine

By Sandra Sánchez-Oldenhage - PharmAdvice Consulting
President and CEO


Sandra Sánchez-Oldenhage By Sandra Sánchez-Oldenhage | President & CEO - Tue, 05/23/2023 - 17:00

share it

The healthcare industry is a critical sector that has a direct impact on the well-being of individuals and the economy at large. While new innovative therapies have been developed, the industry is facing a major challenge in the form of skyrocketing costs, with drug prices being a key area of concern. But high prices are just one piece of a much larger puzzle.

Modern medicine is seeing a trend toward personalized medicine (aka precision medicine), orphan drugs, and gene therapies, which target specific genes and are typically used to treat a smaller number of patients. Due to their limited patient population, pharmaceutical companies face challenges in recouping their research and development costs for these innovative treatments. Moreover, in most cases, patients cannot afford the out-of-pocket expenses for these drugs, while governments and insurance providers are struggling to pay the high costs. This leaves a difficult challenge for pharmaceutical companies to balance the need for innovation with accessibility and affordability.

Developing new drugs is an incredibly expensive, time-consuming, and risky process that can take over a decade and cost billions of dollars. The cost of R&D for personalized medicine, a promising area of innovation in drug development, is particularly high. Personalized medicine aims to develop treatments based on individual genetic characteristics, which can be more effective and have fewer side effects. However, this approach requires extensive research and development, which drives up the cost of new drugs.

According to a recent report by the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, the average cost of developing a new drug is approximately US$2.6 billion. This includes the cost of failed clinical trials and the opportunity cost of investing money in R&D instead of other projects. On average, it takes around 10-15 years to bring a new drug to market from the time it enters preclinical testing. The success rate of new drug development is relatively low, with only about 10% of drugs that enter clinical trials eventually receiving FDA approval.

The rising cost of drug development can be attributed to various factors, including increasing complexity of clinical trials, rising regulatory requirements, and the need to invest in new technologies and research methods. Additionally, the high cost of personalized medicine has been driven up by the need for specialized testing, customized treatment plans, and targeted therapies. For example, some gene therapies can cost upward of US$2 million per patient per year, and the cost of orphan drugs (drugs used to treat rare diseases) has been steadily increasing over the years.

The double bind dilemma that the pharmaceutical industry faces is this: drug companies must earn significant profits on their best-selling drugs to fund the next generation of life-saving medications. However, if drug prices are too high, patients won't be able to afford them, and if prices are too low, companies won't have the resources to invest in future research and development. So, how can we balance the need for innovation with affordability and accessibility?

To make drug prices accessible without stifling innovation, we need to address the root causes of high drug prices, including the high cost of research and development, the lack of competition in the market, and the complex regulatory environment. Here are some potential ideas that could spark discussion and help find solutions. It's crucial to evaluate each idea carefully and involve stakeholders from all sides to ensure balanced solutions are found:

  1. Increase government funding for research: Especially on neglected diseases and rare disorders: Government funding and partnering can offset some of the research costs, ensuring that research on life-saving drugs is not solely dependent on private companies. This can reduce the cost of drugs and encourage pharmaceutical companies to invest in the development of drugs that may not have a large market potential. One example of government funding for research is the US government's funding of the National Institutes of Health, which invests in research to advance our understanding of diseases and develop new treatments. 

  2. Improve the regulatory process to speed up drug approvals: The US FDA's expedited programs, such as Breakthrough Therapy Designation and Accelerated Approval, have shown promise in speeding up drug development and approvals for drugs that address unmet medical needs. However, the FDA can improve these programs by providing more guidance on their use and expanding their scope to include more diseases. Other countries should follow.

  3. Implement alternative financing models: Social impact bonds or health impact funds can incentivize pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs for neglected diseases or unmet medical needs by providing upfront funding based on the impact of their drugs on the health outcomes of the population. For example, the International Finance Corporation has launched a health impact bond to fund the development of a new vaccine for cholera.

  4. Promote competition: By implementing global initiatives that can harmonize regulatory frameworks, creating a level playing field for pharmaceutical companies, and facilitating technology transfer between countries where possible. Initiatives could include implementing competitive bidding programs or allowing for bulk purchases of medications, negotiating drug prices on a regional / global scale, and reducing barriers to entry for generic and biosimilar drugs. By promoting competition, pharmaceutical companies could streamline their processes, reduce costs, expand their markets, and improve the quality of their products to remain competitive.  

  5. Re-evaluate the role of intermediaries: In the pharmaceutical supply chain, such as pharmacy benefit managers and wholesalers. This can lead to lower drug prices and better distribution. The current system can be opaque and inefficient, causing higher costs for patients. Streamlining the supply chain through partnerships between pharmaceutical companies and payers can improve drug pricing and distribution. Additionally, technology can enhance transparency and efficiency in drug supply chains, potentially leading to more affordable drugs for patients.

  6. Encourage price transparency: Instead of mandating price transparency, the government could work with pharmaceutical companies to incentivize them to voluntarily disclose their prices. This could be achieved by offering tax credits or other benefits to companies that are transparent about their pricing. The government could also work with patient advocacy groups to create a rating system for pharmaceutical companies based on their pricing transparency, which could be used by patients and payers to make more informed decisions about which companies to support. 

  7. Reforme patent laws: In a way that balances the need to incentivize innovation and protect intellectual property with the goal of making life-saving drugs more accessible and affordable for patients. Governments can explore alternative forms of intellectual property protection, such as data exclusivity, which grants a company exclusive rights to use clinical data for a set period of time, patent pools, or implementing a system of tiered pricing based on the significance of the innovation to ensure that drugs are priced fairly based on a country's ability to pay.

  8. Develop better drug delivery methods. This is crucial for improving drug efficacy and reducing the cost of treatment. Nanotechnology-based drug delivery systems can increase the bioavailability of drugs, allowing lower doses to be used while achieving the same therapeutic effect. Targeted drug delivery can also improve the effectiveness of drugs by delivering them directly to the specific site of action, reducing side effects and improving patient outcomes. By improving drug delivery methods, we can reduce drug waste and ensure exact dosing schemes, ultimately making drugs more affordable for patients.

  9. Drug repurposing: Which involves finding new therapeutic uses for existing drugs, leveraging their established safety and toxicity profiles, and providing a cost-effective and time-efficient way to develop new treatments. Despite challenges in developing gene therapies and personalized medicine, drug repurposing can still benefit a larger patient population and provide new treatments at a lower cost, ultimately improving access to healthcare for all. By adopting this strategy, we can efficiently develop new treatments for neglected diseases or rare disorders where there may be few treatment options. This approach not only saves time and resources but also increases the availability of life-saving medications, making it a valuable solution for improving global health outcomes.

  10.  Advocate for increased international collaboration: To accelerate drug discovery and development while reducing costs, particularly for neglected diseases and rare disorders. Building on the success of COVID vaccine development, we can foster open science and data sharing by incentivizing pharmaceutical companies to share their data and research through tax credits and funding for collaborative projects. Governments and nonprofit organizations can facilitate data sharing by creating open-source platforms for researchers to share their findings. Moreover, by including patients in clinical trials and sharing the costs of R&D, we can help reduce the overall cost of drug development while providing greater access to drugs in developing countries.

In a world where affordable and innovative medical treatments remain a luxury, we cannot stand idly by. It's time for action. We need a holistic approach that tackles the root causes of the problem and prioritizes accessibility for all. Patients deserve access to necessary medical treatments without facing a crippling financial burden. 

It's time for pharmaceutical companies, policymakers, patient advocates, and healthcare providers to work together toward a system that prioritizes both innovation and accessibility. The pharmaceutical industry must invest in research and development while keeping affordability in mind. Policymakers must create a transparent regulatory environment that promotes innovation and affordable medications for all. Patient advocates and healthcare providers must demand better access to care for their patients.

We must recognize that the status quo is unsustainable. The high cost of innovation is placing an unbearable burden on patients and families, preventing many from accessing the care they need. By innovating, collaborating, and thinking creatively, we can find sustainable solutions that benefit everyone. Together, let's make accessible and affordable medical treatment a reality for all. It's time for action.

Photo by:   Sandra Sánchez-Oldenhage

You May Like

Most popular