Irish patients deserve faster access to the best new medicines. We are slower than almost every other western European country to give the latest medicines to our patients. Patients in Germany get access to new medicines over four times faster than patients in Ireland. It takes three times longer to make new medicines available to our patients compared to Denmark.
The figures are from the annual EFPIA Patient WAIT Indicator Survey which measured how long it took medicines authorised for use by Europe’s medicines regulator, the European Medicines Agency, to become available for patients. The survey covered 39 European countries, including 27 in the EU, for the full four years between 2017 and 2020.
Most new medicines are assessed through stringent tests by the European Medicines Agency. If the medicines are licensed, companies can then apply to national authorities to reimburse them for patients in their health services. In Ireland, the HSE then evaluates the medicines based on prices agreed with companies. But that journey can take years after licensing. In the meantime, sick people who need vital medicines can’t get them.
Take cancer, a disease that kills one of us every hour. Ireland is almost four months slower to make new cancer medicines available to patients compared to the average across the EU. In Sweden, patients get cancer medicines over twice as fast as us. In Germany, the time between authorisation and availability for cancer medicines was 100 days. In Denmark, it was 140 days. Here, it was 661 days. That can’t be right.
For rare diseases, which affect about 300,000 people in Ireland, we are the slowest country in western Europe to make orphan medicines available to patients. Other countries in central and eastern Europe, like Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Slovakia, are faster than us.
Overall, the survey shows that new medicines proposed for reimbursement in Ireland face waiting an average of 541 days before the health services can use them.
What causes delays in access to new medicines? Funding and processes. The industry can help to fix both – but it is not just down to us. Funding is improving. In the past two Budgets, the Government has invested €80 million in new medicines, helping to improve access for patients. Rebates and discounts on older medicines, amounting to up to €800 million, mean the State can reinvest in new medicines through our cost-reduction efforts. Partnership is the best way to improve patients’ access to new medicines within a reasonable level of investment growth by the State.
The decision pathway a drug must travel, especially after it has been assessed clinically, still takes far too long. Our reimbursement process should be more efficient. We want to work on solutions, alongside the State, so that barriers give way to breakthroughs. A Bill, proposed by Fianna Fáil’s Pádraig O’Sullivan, for better access to orphan drugs is a step in the right direction.
We live in an era of medical innovation. Thousands of treatments, diagnostics, vaccines and cures are in development globally. Medicines have helped us to make major gains in the fight against heart disease, stroke and many forms of cancer. New treatments are coming for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, Parkinson’s disease and more. Gene therapy is offering new hope, maybe even cures, to patients.
Despite all this innovation, Europe’s medicines bills have have remained a stable share of health budgets. The key drivers of cost are ageing populations and the burden of chronic diseases. In the long run, medicines reduce health costs.
Getting access to a new medicine could, for some patients, mean seeing another Christmas, staying out of hospital or being able to breathe more easily. If these stories don’t inspire us all to find ways to get new medicines to patients when they need them, it is hard to know what will.
Bernard Mallee is Director of Communications and Advocacy for the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association.