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By: Scott Whitaker, President and CEO, AdvaMed
October 11, 2018

Collaboration Helps Lead to Innovation and Better Patient Outcomes

Last week, an article by Barbara Bridgman Perkins, PhD, was published in the Washington Post admonishing the relationships between industry and health care providers to advance radiotherapy treatment. Below is what I submitted in response.

Innovation, by nature, calls for collaboration. For years, industry leaders and health care providers, in close connection with the patients they serve, have joined forces to identify problems, create solutions, and drive shared health progress. The impact of this relationship is significant. In the last 30 years, medical advancements have helped add more than five years to U.S. life expectancy and reduced mortality rates for a host of serious conditions. In the cancer space alone, breast cancer deaths are down 36 percent and colon cancer deaths are down 48 percent. Considering up to 60 percent of cancer patients receive radiotherapy at some point during their care, there’s no doubt that advances in radiotherapy technology have helped drive such declines.

Every day, doctors use radiation to treat all types of cancer in a safe, targeted, and highly successful way. In fact, if all cancer patients needing radiation therapy had access to the technology, by 2035, cancer in 2.5 million people would be prevented from progressing to more severe stages of cancer and 950,000 people would have an overall survival benefit.

Who’s to say how that number will grow with the introduction of more effective technology in the coming years? Who’s to say when radiation therapy might change cancer from a fatal disease to a curable one? We know a cure for cancer will take some time. But it will happen. Just look at how far we’ve come, thanks to consistent research and development fueled by dedicated partnerships between industry and health care providers.

Radiation therapy has indeed been around for more than 100 years. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, doctors experimented with large, untargeted doses of radiation to treat cancer patients; studies on the treatments reported reductions in tumor size, but also reported damaging side effects, like skin burns and the destruction of healthy tissue. Radiation therapy seemed an imperfect treatment. The story could have ended there. But it didn’t.

Recognizing the potential at large, medical-industrial partnerships pushed for rapid technological progress focused on improving effectiveness and, importantly, reducing harmful consequences associated with prolonged radiation exposure. Health care providers shared valuable recommendations on how to improve the safety and functionality of existing technology; industry leaders harnessed technical expertise and manufacturing know-how in response. New and better technology emerged.

By the 1960s, linear accelerators could deliver radiation beams deeper into the body. By the 1970s and 80s, new imaging technologies, such as computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET) scans allowed doctors to better locate and target tumors with radiation. Over the last two decades, new products and systems have reduced the average radiation dose for many procedures by up to 75 percent, while maintaining improved patient outcomes. These discoveries would not have been possible without the strong working relationship between industry and health care players.

Today, thanks to that very same relationship, radiation therapy has advanced near the point of science fiction. Doctors can pinpoint the exact coordinates of a patient’s tumor – and a patient’s anatomy – down to the millimeter in real time, accounting for the slightest movements throughout treatment, even the effect of the patient’s own breathing patterns. They can focus radiation with the precision of a knife point, and with shaped beam technology, they can personalize radiation beam shapes exactly in line with an individual tumor’s shape, saving surrounding healthy tissue in the process.

The pace of innovation will only quicken. There’s no finish line when it comes to health care. Industry leaders and health care providers will continue to work together to improve our shared landscape for the benefit of patients everywhere. Still, it’s important that both industry leaders and health care providers are held accountable for their actions, and it’s important that patients understand the relationships at play. That’s why both parties operate under strict rules and regulations to share information and enhance transparency. For example, the Sunshine Law requires that transfers of value made by industry players to health care providers be clearly and consistently reported.  

Patients are waiting for the next medical breakthrough. They’re waiting for the next success story, the next industry-medical partnership borne fruit. While there’s no easy way to measure what might be on the horizon, if it’s anything like radiotherapy, it has the power to transform health care beyond belief.