The COVID-19 pandemic put unimaginable pressure on the lives of people working for the NHS. Not only from the immediate pressure in terms of increased patient numbers, but also the personal aspect – knowing that sometimes there were people without COVID that they were simply unable to help.
There are millions of people living with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions throughout the UK. For these people their medical needs do not cease in the face of a global pandemic. It is a huge testament to the dedication of the NHS that so many individuals have been able to continue their treatment, while resources were stretched in response to the virus.
Continuing best patient care through a time of uncertainty
Balancing the priorities of managing COVID-19 while ensuring patients do not miss out on vital treatment has required partnership. Open, flexible and judicious discussions between pharmaceutical companies and the NHS have occurred to create solutions born out of a time of crisis.
Changes in care pathways have resulted in a reduction of footfall in hospitals which has been beneficial in the management of COVID-19 infections. One such example is the provision of certain cancer treatments at home, rather than in the hospital. As this particular group of people often receive immunocompromising therapies, such as chemotherapy, hospital-based treatment would increase their risk of exposure to the virus while being at a high risk of serious complications. As such, home-based treatment has reduced the levels of anxiety and vulnerability that people living with these forms of cancer have been experiencing. However, this is part of a broader and more complex picture.
The impact of restrictions for patients goes much deeper. Social distancing and limitations on movement have made access to emotional support from friends or family more difficult.[i] This is particularly true for people who have needed to shield due to pre-existing health conditions, or because they are taking immunocompromising treatments - further adding to their sense of isolation.1 Also, patients with complex conditions that would typically be treated in the hospital setting are notably feeling the impact of reduced contact with their doctors and nurses, as well as family members, and the reassurance that contact with professionals provides for them.1
The digital future for holistic support
While created in response to the pandemic, many of the new approaches that have emerged will help shape healthcare systems for years to come. Yet they will have both shortcomings as well as benefits that need to be considered.
The NHS will need significant time to recover completely from the overload it experienced as the pandemic began. We have shown ourselves, as an industry, to be world-class in the provision and logistical expertise required to find solutions and treat disease in novel ways. As healthcare services start to recover, we can begin to focus once again on the holistic view of care – how we can address patient welfare in ways that can have a long-lasting impact.
The obvious starting point for this is the continuation of virtual engagement. Telemedicine, in various forms, is the cornerstone from which this is built upon. It provides doctors and nurses with the reassurance and time to ask questions many patients and their loved ones need to understand, to help them engage with, and embrace their treatment decisions.
There is a balance to be found however, between in-person and virtual care. To support us in finding the right balance, we need to understand each patient and their needs. Digital solutions such as apps allow physicians and patients to report progress, supporting the provision of a tailored approach to holistic care. By capturing elements such as quality of life, we can help doctors identify their patients who are feeling more vulnerable, who may benefit from greater face-to-face contact or who need additional lifestyle support.
The pilot programmes we have conducted in this area have yielded a positive response. The people in the programmes have been able to access mental health and lifestyle management, such as mindfulness and planned exercise regimes, and have told us of the benefit this has had for them.
Maintaining flexibility to address challenges for care
Through discussions with patients and healthcare professionals, we have heard the need for flexible ways to manage conditions while maintaining the benefits of regular interaction between both parties. The pandemic forced us to look at new ways to achieve this, and the knowledge we have gained as an industry will also inform our future approaches to patient care. Astellas, like many groups, are on a continuing course of learning and improving support programmes for patients. While the virtual world has quickly become our ‘new normal’, the importance of digital connectivity and community-based treatment models will play an important role in our future endeavours.
[i] Cancer Research UK. Living well with cancer during the coronavirus pandemic. Available at: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancer-in-general/coronavirus/living-well Last accessed: February 2021
NON_2021_0060_UK, July 2021