An investment in health will bring wealth for Slovak society

Covid-19 has shown us that if there is an effort, things can be done in Slovak health care.

Politicians need to see health care funding not as a burden, but rather as an investment in public wealth, says Marcelo Pascual, managing director of Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) in the interview.

MSD has been present in Slovakia for almost three decades. What has the company brought to local health care?

We consider ourselves a value-adding partner of the health care system that has a positive impact on the patients we serve and that brings prosperity to society. First, with our life-saving medicines and vaccines that are a core part of our mission and second with our expertise and investment in improving the entire patient pathway to achieve better outcomes.
We collaborate with different stakeholders to advance and support the health care system. We work closely, not only with the government, but also with patient organisations and health care professionals, on supporting legislative changes, education, digitalisation to improve patient management and other activities that contribute to the improvement of the health care system.
MSD has a strong presence and offers support to different organisations such as AIFP, AmCham, and GLOBSEC, which play a relevant role in the discussions around health care. Its goal is to support access to innovations in the health care system and solve the current inequalities.

Health care is facing an unprecedented crisis worldwide due to Covid-19. How is the Slovak system handling it, compared to other European countries?

Covid-19 has had an impact everywhere and I do not think that any health care system was ready to absorb, support and provide ready-made solutions to the pandemic. The health care system in Slovakia has its own challenges, mainly around how to improve sustainability, resilience, and the lack of access to innovative therapies for patients.
To make a change that can lead to better patient outcomes and to create a more resilient health care system for the future, an investment in health care is urgently needed. Slovakia is performing well in many economic parameters; there is no reason why health care should be left behind given its importance for society and the prosperity of the country.
We believe that an investment in health will bring wealth. The focus of the health care system should be on value, patient outcomes, and well-being rather than cost. It will improve prevention and bring value to the entire society. Let me give you an example. The media recently reported on a case of an oncology patient who needed a type of therapy that had not been reimbursed here in Slovakia. She started a fundraising campaign to get funding for the therapy. After three different cycles of that oncology therapy, she felt much better, her situation improved a lot. As a result, the insurance company realised the therapy was effective. Therefore, they started to reimburse it and this person is now back at work. This is a great example of how an investment in health care can also contribute to wealth. Better outcomes for the patients are also better outcomes for society and its productivity.

Are there areas in health care that have been particularly suffering during the past year and a half?

I would like to highlight oncology. This is an area where historically, if you look over the last 10 years, Slovakia lags behind other EU countries. This has gotten even worse with the pandemic. Just to give you perspective, the highest mortality rate across EU countries in all types of cancer, except for non-melanoma skin cancer, is in Slovakia according to the European Cancer Information System. Only one third of innovative therapies for cancer are reimbursed in Slovakia compared to the rest of the European Union. Inequalities in cancer treatment lead to poor outcomes for Slovak patients.
We need to step up this battle and take cancer out of the hidden shadows. We should declare cancer an urgent public health, social and economic issue that must become a political priority.

What can be done to improve the situation?

An open dialouge and collaboration between all the stakeholders in the health care system around a common goal is critical.
Since the Minister of Health, Mr. Lengvarský, came onboard, he has taken steps to try to solve the key issues. First with Covid-19 pandemic, but also in many other areas. In terms of treating cancer, the Ministry of Health has recently announced a change in access to innovative therapies.
That is encouraging news, and I think that society is pleased that Mr. Lengvarský is leading the Ministry of Health and taking actions to improve it. His actions may lead to the ministry putting new laws in place.
In MSD we are also active in supporting those efforts. We have experts in our company sitting on behalf of relevant associations at the table with the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders trying to support all the efforts to change the law to enable better access to innovative therapies. It is also important for them to see that for any law changes they may make to enable access to innovative therapies, they also need to invest.

How do you perceive the work of the new Minister of Health Vladimír Lengvarský?

We believe he provides hope for patients, who he meets with regularly. There is a new law being discussed. The government has a unique opportunity to bring Slovak society to the level that it deserves with the new law that improves the overall health care system. It is important for them to understand that those changes need to come with investment and that investment will lead to better outcomes for society.
We, as a company, are committed to being part of the solution. We offer our solutions and are partnership to solve their issues as well. We have expertise and examples of solutions from other countries that can help tackle different situations here in Slovakia.

What parts of the EU Beating Cancer Plan do you consider of key importance?

The EU Beating Cancer Plan provides policymakers and payers with a roadmap for organising and delivering care to the benefit of patients and society in general as well as measuring improvements in terms of patient outcomes. We at MSD, in partnership with others, advocate for cancer control planning to ensure access to quality treatment and support early diagnosis and higher rates of adequate treatment.
We recognise, however, that this is not enough: sustained and effective enforcement and implementation, including adequate funding, is vital. We need to solve a lot of inequalities, so everything is important in the EU Beating Cancer Plan. There are elements within that centered around inequalities. There is also funding coming from the EU to support these plans, nearly four billion euros for Europe that the European Commission can provide to countries to help them in the implementation of the plan.
MSD is also partnering with different stakeholders in Slovakia to help implement the EU Beating Cancer Plan. Recently, GLOBSEC and OnkoAliancia Slovensko in collaboration with patient organisations, the government and other relevant stakeholders held an event where they discussed some of the key elements of the EU Beating Cancer Plan, the situation in Slovakia and how all the elements of that plan can be implemented here.

What are other notable MSD initiatives in this area?

We are partnering with GLOBSEC in the implementation of the CEE Beating Cancer Plan. The kick-off was just recently in May and June with an event involving different stakeholders. This kind of forum and partnership will last for the entire year and even beyond. We have more events coming up where we will invite experts, not just from Slovakia, but also from outside, to tackle the different pieces of what needs to improve around prevention, vaccinations, therapies, and inequalities, and then how we can solve it.

How is MSD involved in one of the most pressing issues right now – vaccination against Covid-19?

We are partnering with Johnson & Johnson to help with the manufacturing of their vaccine and are also developing treatment for Covid-19. Right now, it is in phase two. We have some early results, which are promising,.We have discussed the procurement process with the European Union sohopefully, it will be available soon, at the end of this year orbeginning of next. It will be another weapon to fight against Covid-19.

A substantial part of your career is tied to MSD. What about the company inspires your loyalty?

The mission: the mission of improving and saving the lives of patients, the values in the company, and the working environment. This is a company that cares about its employees, that develops you and offers opportunities for your career. Also, you work in an environment of different cultures, different people, and that helps you grow. I found a great team in Slovakia committed to improving patients' lives that I am proud to work with.

This article has been brought to you by MSD Slovensko.

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