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A New Era of Health-Care Innovation

ZURICH – We are experiencing a new wave of innovation in health care – one that promises to create the smartest, most connected, and most efficient health systems the world has ever seen. Game-changing new technologies and treatments are transforming the practice of medicine, dramatically altering the patient experience, and creating conditions for even more breakthroughs.

The proof is in the data. Last year, a record 61 drugs were introduced worldwide, compared with an annual average of 34 in the previous decade. More than 40% of these treatments were for rare or difficult-to-treat conditions, including hepatitis C, meningococcal B, and metastatic melanoma. And more new breakthroughs are on the horizon. It is estimated that about 70% of the drugs currently in development across the industry are potential “first in class” treatments, meaning that they use a completely new mechanism of action against disease.

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The new wave of innovation is attributable to three key factors: the ability to personalize therapy, the capacity to get treatments to market faster, and improved engagement with patients.

First, major advances in our knowledge of genomics – specifically, the way diseases manifest and develop in the body at the genetic level – are improving our ability to target illness at each stage and improve the patient experience. Genetic markers, for example, can indicate which patients are likely to benefit from a drug, thereby improving outcomes while allowing patients to avoid potentially painful side effects of treatments that are unlikely to work.

For early-stage breast cancer patients, genetic markers show whether chemotherapy is likely to have an impact, or if hormone therapy alone is the better option. A new lung cancer drug developed by my company, Novartis, is effective only in patients with non-small-cell lung cancer who have a particular genetic mutation.

The use of genomic expertise to improve health care is just beginning. One promising area of investigation is CRISPR – a cutting-edge tool that could allow us to delete, repair, or replace the genes that cause disease. As our understanding of the characteristics of a particular patient’s illness becomes increasingly precise, treatment will become increasingly effective and will reduce the risk of side effects.

Moreover, advances in our understanding of disease are boosting the efficiency of the drug development process, making it possible to bring new innovations to market faster. For example, genetic testing is being used to pre-select participants for clinical trials, cutting recruitment times. With this approach, research can begin in as little as three weeks, compared to the 34 weeks, on average, for a standard trial. Add to that our ability to analyze data more quickly, and to make more precise decisions about dosing, and the clinical trial timeframe shrinks considerably.

Finally, real-time data and emerging technology tools have the potential to improve patient engagement and adherence, especially among those with chronic conditions caused by non-communicable diseases (NCDs). As the world’s population ages, the incidence of NCDs is expected to rise, accounting for 52 million deaths annually by 2030. More than 80% of NCD deaths are the result of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer, and diabetes.

As it stands, noncompliance with medication regimes is a major problem in treating NCDs. For example, diabetes patients in the United States with the lowest level of compliance have a 30% yearly risk of hospitalization, compared to a 13% risk for patients with a high level of adherence. That implies large costs for health-care systems – about $200 billion in the US and €125 billion ($133 billion) in the European Union each year. Technologies that engage patients in their own health care and enable more seamless adherence to medication regimes have the potential to improve disease management, reduce hospitalization, and lower costs.

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Today’s transformational advances in health care owe much to new genomics information, to the availability of big data to influence decisions in real time, to more targeted and individualized therapies, and to smarter, more connected delivery systems. But they are just the beginning. Further breakthroughs, enabled by the convergence of science and technology, can be expected, especially as unconventional players enter the health-care sector. In this process, partnerships between health-care and technology companies will become increasingly important.

It is an exciting time for health care, with many disruptive innovations on the horizon. For patients and providers alike, this is very good news.

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