Preparing for a post-pandemic world

Janssen’s Mark Hicken, VP of strategy, EMEA, looks at what COVID-19 has taught us and how we can become stronger as we emerge from the pandemic.

There’s plenty of talk about a post-COVID world right now, which can seem strange when so many places are still feeling the impact or remain in the grip of the pandemic. But looking ahead is crucially important. That’s how we plan, and how we prepare ourselves for a stronger, more resilient future.

COVID-19 hit us hard. Harder, probably, than most of us would have imagined. And there were warnings.

The World Health Organization had stated our vulnerability to a viral threat. In his 2015 TED talk, Bill Gates surmised that a highly infectious virus, rather than a war, was our greatest risk of global catastrophe.

But when the pandemic struck in early 2020, we were found wanting. We didn’t have enough protective equipment immediately available. We were slower than needed to produce tests, roll out testing systems, and implement social distancing measures.

All in all, we simply didn’t have the measures in place to be able to deal with a public health emergency of such magnitude.

The response, however, was incredible. Industries and governments collaborated to remove obstacles and fast-track innovation. Supply chains flexed and adapted to get essential goods where they needed to be. Public health agencies and pharma pivoted in countless ways, from decentralising clinical trials and accelerating research and development, to enabling remote care and remote working with rapid digitisation.

And we transformed so quickly because the key players communicated and collaborated. The key now is to carry this mindset forward, so we prepare ourselves not just for the next worldwide threat, but for whatever the future holds.

To do this, to become robust, resilient, and strong on a global scale, I believe we must consider three priority areas.

Shifting the focus from illness to wellness

Healthcare systems are in the process of bouncing back. It’s great to see innovative pandemic readiness initiatives like EU4Health and the HERA Incubator, which are aimed at helping us to better withstand future outbreaks and fostering collaboration to enable a rapid response to fast-moving disasters.

This will, inevitably, take longer in some areas. Surgical activity in England and Wales alone reduced by a third during 2020, a shortfall estimated to increase to 2.4 million cancelled operations by the end of 2021. It will be a while before the waiting list for surgeries starts to come down.

So, while various recoveries run their course, we must aim to raise the overall health of our populations, striving for breakthroughs that put better health within reach of everyone, everywhere.

Prioritising prevention and early intervention are two ways to approach this goal. Lifestyle changes can help address some chronic diseases and underlying health conditions, many of which made many people extremely vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.

“While the various recoveries run their course, we must aim to raise the overall health of our populations”

And investing in the best possible treatment as early as possible can mean quicker recovery for a patient, and delay or remove entirely the need for follow-up treatment. If more people get better more quickly, the overall health of a population rises. And that, in turn, can reduce the burden on hospitals and systems, and allow healthcare services to focus their resources even more strategically.

The pharma industry has a responsibility to demonstrate the full value of medicines; the part treatments can play in raising the overall health of a population. Now is the time to create lasting change in care, delivery and treatment, and not just make people better, but help them stay well.

Innovating to increase value

Along with a change of focus must come a change of approach.

The pandemic accelerated trends like digitisation, remote healthcare and the use of simpler care pathways. Telemedicine came to the fore. Many patients and healthcare providers now meet online, and some clinical studies can be conducted virtually, with wearables and AI enabling data collection and treatment adaptation.

Digital innovation has the potential to continue enhancing and improving patient care, which is why Janssen launched a digital accelerator project late last year. The aim is to work with start-up companies to generate ideas for digital therapeutics, patient support apps, and boosting research and development.

COVID-19 also put global supply chains in the spotlight, as industry looked to remove obstacles and speed the delivery of material crucial to vaccine development processes. There is huge complexity to the existing infrastructure and improving it will require all stakeholders to collaborate, but there is scope for much greater efficiency here.

“Digital innovation has the potential to continue enhancing and improving patient care, which is why Janssen launched a digital accelerator project late last year”

Collaboration is, of course, a key component of innovation. Janssen currently has more than 150 partnerships in play, with a view to developing and delivering new products that can advance scientific research and provide value to patients, physicians, and healthcare systems around the world.

Companies who were previously competitors have formed partnerships during the pandemic, and I hope these sustain for years to come; accelerating drug development and getting new medicines to patients as quickly as possible.

We should innovate anywhere and everywhere possible, driving down costs, increasing value for healthcare providers, and tackling the world’s toughest health challenges. This includes removing obstacles that hinder the development of, and access to, treatments that patients need – especially new and potentially transformative therapies.

And it’s worth saying that collaboration and competition are not mutually exclusive. Within pharma, as in many other industries, competition drives innovation.

By necessitating the discovery and development of new therapies, competition can help produce the best outcomes for patients, and I believe every company, department and team should always be striving to be the best in class.

Ensuring our teams are equipped and ready

Innovation and collaboration flow through into the third priority area, which is about ensuring we are fit for the future.

We need to look at our people and ask, are we challenging ourselves to trust, empower and diversify our teams? Are they enabled and equipped to deliver excellence? Are they invested in the right goals and comfortable with being accountable for achieving them?

It’s essential to provide training, mentoring and professional support. Leaders must be role models. It’s equally essential to remember that our people are people, with lives and families and personal circumstances.

I’m proud to work for a company that has long provided flexible working practises. These have only expanded during the past 18 months, along with a continual attention to workloads, wellbeing and mental health.

Which is not to say that strain and fatigue haven’t taken their toll. But we’re focused on emerging from this period with an adaptive approach that allows our people to perform to the best of their ability, in a realistic, sustainable way.

And a lot of that comes from clarity of purpose. Understanding our unique role in a team, knowing what a great performance looks like, and appreciating the interdependencies across our high-performing teams. Only then can we be clear about how we contribute to the common goal of creating a healthier company, society, and world.

Our ways of working will continue to change. We will seek to refine and improve. We will respond to challenges as yet unseen. And we will keep investing in our people, so they’re as resilient and empowered as possible.

Wouldn’t it be great if – as a company, as an industry, and across the entire healthcare ecosystem – we were able to look back, years from now, and see that what was achieved during this time was only the beginning?

About the author

Mark Hicken is vice president of strategy for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Janssen, the Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. Prior to this, he led Janssen global strategy for Neuroscience where he oversaw the preparation and launch of new products and refreshed Janssen’s approach in this therapy area, broadening its footprint beyond psychiatry into neurological disorders. Beginning his career with Janssen in 1998 as a sale representative, Mark worked his way up through the organisation to become managing director for Janssen UK & Ireland from 2014 to 2019.