Marc Harrison: The nation could learn a thing or two from Utahns about keeping people healthy

https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2021/03/12/marc-harrison-nation/

Marc HarrisonM.D., is president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare.

We are better served by a system that seeks to keep people healthy, not wait until they get sick.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that there’s a much better way to keep people healthy while reducing stress on our health care system at the same time. This will not only help mitigate risks from any future public health crisis, but also improve the well being and health of people in our community.

Utah’s Intermountain Healthcare, along with our community and health care colleagues, are leading a movement to do just that.

We greatly value and appreciate all our government, community and health care partners that coordinate closely with us to address the pandemic and provide care for our communities. It’s been a statewide team effort and will continue to be a team effort.

The roots of a deeply flawed national health care model that had taken hold long ago proved to create both systemic and personal health risks. According to a recent study, the U.S. had far more people hospitalized, more people with chronic conditions, double the obesity rates and the highest rate of preventable deaths among comparable nations. This was before the pandemic ever started. Our national health system was perfectly designed to be overwhelmed under the COVID-19 stress.

Moreover, many people who have died from COVID-19 were in poor health to begin with or were managing preventable chronic conditions. The flawed national health care system was never designed to support their goal to stay healthy. Instead, it was designed to wait until they got sick and then treat them.

Utah has one of the lowest death rates from COVID-19 in the nation. It’s at least partly true that this can be attributed to the superb care by medical providers in the state. But the data show a more interesting story. People in our state are in better health compared to those in other states.

We play outside more, drink less and smoke less than people in other states. Our rate of obesity is far lower than most other states. It’s no surprise that our recorded COVID-19 death rate is among the lowest in the nation. In fact, three of the top five healthiest states also have the three of the top six lowest recordable death rates from COVID-19. We don’t believe that’s a coincidence.

Over the last several years, Intermountain has focused more resources on keeping people healthy and out of hospitals. Vaccines have long been a critical part of this strategy. And while that garners most of the immediate headlines, we’ve geared our entire system’s strategy to focus on keeping people and communities well.

For example, Intermountain is a world leader in precision genomics medicine that aims to better treat and prevent genetic diseases. The opportunity to participate in the biggest, voluntary research of its kind is available for anyone in our community at no cost. With our community’s help, we can eventually share what we learn with others across the country and the world to help keep everyone healthier.

We are investing in addressing social determinants of health to keep people out of emergency rooms or other clinical settings for unneeded visits. Social determinants of health are influences that affect people’s long-term health, such as stable housing, joblessness, hunger, unsafe neighborhoods and access to transportation.

We’ve been working with and providing funding to multiple local nonprofit agencies that address these issues, and have provided financial support for a three-year pilot in Utah to see how community partnerships can address those influences in low-income ZIP codes. Often, simple and affordable changes can help prevent unnecessary health issues.

We’ve integrated mental health care with primary care because we know that mental health is essential to a person’s overall health. Long before the pandemic hit our shores, we deployed telehealth services that helps care for people closer to their homes and families. It’s not simply a matter of convenience for those we serve, but can lead to better health outcomes for less money.

All of us can’t wait to get back to some sense of normal. But for the nation’s health system, going back to normal shouldn’t be an option. We must do better. And Intermountain is determined to partner with Utahns and do what we all do best – lead the nation and the world by setting a better example.

The drug pricing debate is stuck in the past

https://www.axios.com/drug-pricing-debate-stuck-in-past-10ba315e-0ddf-4013-8c5a-f8ee89c2f530.html

Illustration of falling pills and coins

There’s a scientific and economic revolution happening in medicine, and the political debate over drug prices isn’t keeping up. Not only are policymakers struggling to agree on solutions, they’re mostly talking about yesterday’s problems.

Why it matters: Medical innovation is already hurtling toward a new era of highly specialized drugs — some are even tailor-made for each individual patient. They may be more effective than anything we’ve seen before, and also more expensive. But the drug-pricing debate is more focused on decades-old parts of the system.

The big picture: “We haven’t really contemplated how we’re going to absorb some of these things,” Food and Drug Administration Scott Gottlieb said. “These are good problems to have…but they are policy challenges.”

Where it stands: Congress is mainly squabbling over proposals to reduce prices by boosting competition — by making it easier to start developing generics, or by changing patent protections that help pharmaceutical companies keep their rivals at bay.

Yes, but: Those regulatory tools were designed for a world in which pharmaceutical companies develop relatively simple drugs and try to market them to a big group of people. But science is rapidly moving away from that world.

  • Gene therapy, for example, is the new wave in cancer treatment. It helps patients’ own immune systems fight off cancer — which means each dose is custom-made for each patient. It’s a highly promising approach, but treatment can come with a price tag north of $1 million once all is said and done.
  • The old dichotomy of a brand-name pill followed by a generic version of that pill doesn’t really hold up for custom-made drugs.
  • So tools that try to promote competition simply may not work as well. “I don’t think they’re solutions for gene therapies because I think you’re ultimately going to have to figure out ways to capitalize those costs,” Gottlieb said.

Even without being custom-made, many new drugs are still trying to treat smaller groups of patients — like people with the same specific genetic mutation.

  • “Generic entry might not prove to be as successful for addressing this problem as it has historically been, and I think it’s because we fundamentally have shifted into these other types of products where competition is just more challenging,” Vanderbilt’s Stacie Dusetzina said.

Most of these new drugs belong to a class known as biologics. They’re more complex than the drugs we’re used to, and therefore have the potential to be more precise in the way they interact with your body.

  • “The way drugs are produced and made now is quite different from the way they were produced and made in the early ‘80s, and that’s both because…you have a lot of these drugs being made for small populations, and for biologics the science is so much more complicated,” said Rachel Sachs, a professor at Washington University.
  • Biologics don’t have traditional generic versions; the equivalent are products known as “biosimilars.”
  • The Affordable Care Act created a pathway for the FDA to approve biosimilars, but that market has been slow to take off, and at least in the early going, biosimilars often don’t offer the same steep discounts as traditional generics.

Promoting competition isn’t the only idea in the world, but more muscular price controls are much more controversial.

  • Most of these new, complex drugs are administered at a doctor’s office, not picked up from a pharmacy. The Trump administration has proposed tying Medicare’s payments for that class of drugs to the lower prices that other countries pay, and Democrats support direct Medicare price negotiations.

The bottom line: “One version of ten years from now will have very limited competition in certain types of markets, either because the market has eroded it to be that way or because the drugs that are coming out will by definition have limited competition,” said Rena Conti, a professor at Boston University.