Not every cough is COVID – MSD UK’s lung cancer campaign

For World Cancer Day, David Long, business unit director of Oncology at MSD UK tells pharmaphorum about the company’s ‘Do It Yourself’ campaign launched in the North East to raise awareness of lung cancer symptoms.

As COVID cases surged last year, lung cancer referrals dropped in the UK, causing alarm to the UK Lung Cancer Coalition (UKLCC), an alliance of the UK’s leading lung cancer experts, senior NHS professionals, charities, and healthcare companies.

“When the pandemic struck, we all saw the impact it was having on patients entering the system and when the referral rates dropped off in some parts of the UK by 80% from primary care to secondary care, we were clearly concerned,” says David Long, business unit director of Oncology at MSD UK.

In December 2020, MSD UK targeted the North East of England with a campaign urging people to remember “not every cough is COVID” and visit their GP if they had a cough for more than three weeks.

“A lot of the feedback we had from the UKLCC was that there needed to be action,” Long explained. “We had to do something to get patients to really engage with the system and this was the genesis of the campaign.”

Support for the campaign came from patient associations, charities and cancer alliances including the Greater Manchester Cancer Alliance and the Northern Cancer Alliance.

“I think one of the strengths of this campaign is that  there was a real collaborative effort to ensure that all voices were heard as it was being developed,” said Long.

The campaign used a “Do It For Yourself” slogan to deliberately target an older demographic that may avoid visiting the GP. “We ran a number of different focus groups to try and reach those communities and understand  their perspective,” said Long,

“Knowing that they were a challenging and underserved group in terms of public health messaging.”

The campaign appealed to individuals to fix it for themselves and take ownership of their health like they did with other aspects of their life.

However, the campaign faced the challenge of overcoming the COVID message of staying home to protect the NHS. “It was counter to the earlier government messages around staying at home, but that was exactly the point because we needed people to recognise they may have symptoms that aren’t COVID and the health service was open for them as it should be,” Long explained.

Crafting the right visuals and media strategy was also key, according to Long. “We didn’t use much social media, and that was a conscious choice, given the target audience, given the type of people we were trying to reach,” said Long. “It was a more traditional media-type approach, and we got some great television and radio coverage. We also used a lot of patient stories. It was really about trying to find the right content to ensure that we were getting through to this target audience.”

Poor outcomes in UK

MSD will continue to work with the NHS looking at how the lung cancer pathway can be improved. On 4 February NICE announced it will back regular NHS funding England and Wales for Merck, Sharp and Dohme’s Keytruda in combination with pemetrexed and platinum chemotherapy in certain lung cancer patients.

“Not just in terms of getting patients into it, but we want to help map the pathways so they can understand where some of their challenges are,” said Long.

While lung cancer outcomes have improved in the last 10-15 years, the UK still has one of the worst rates in Europe. Approximately 35,000 people die due to the condition, which is more than breast and bowel cancer combined.

“We know this is the third most prevalent cancer in the UK and the biggest killer. The challenge we have is that patients are usually diagnosed late and getting them through the clinical pathway in the UK takes time compared to other European countries as we have different referral patterns and different groups involved in providing care.”

A high smoking prevalence combined with low socioeconomic factors can also make lung cancer more prevalent in certain parts of the population, which is compounded by a lack of equipment.

“We just don’t actually have that much scanning equipment compared to many other EU countries,” said Long.

Ultimately, MSD’s goal, Long says, is to ensure the UK improves outcomes of lung cancer patients. “Not everything is about the lead table in Europe, but when it comes to patients and how they’re getting on, it is better for the UK to be moving up towards the top of that. In general, we’re just really hopeful that the campaign bears some fruit in terms of immediate outcomes.”