More than just medicines: Canada’s innovative pharmaceutical industry is contributing to the country’s overall health

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This article originally appeared in the Hill Times on February 13, 2024.

After a diagnosis, having access to state-of-the-art medicines or treatments early can potentially save the lives of patients in need. Unfortunately, Canadians wait two years or more before being able to access their much-needed medications and treatments. That’s almost double the wait times of other developed countries around the world. What if these long wait times could be significantly reduced? Improving access to new medicines can not only transform the lives of patients, but also reduce the pressure and strain on our country’s healthcare system.

A healthcare system in crisis

The pride Canadians feel towards our healthcare system has declined in recent decades. Beyond the well-documented doctor shortages and overcrowded hospitals, patients are experiencing lengthy delays in getting access to the innovative medicines they need.

Canadians wait two years or longer before getting access to Health Canada-approved new treatments and vaccines through public drug plans. As a result, Canada ranks last in the G7 and 19th out of 20 peer OECD countries in the time it takes for approved new medicines to become accessible to patients.

“For rare disease patients, the numbers are even more staggering. Only 60 per cent of rare disease treatments make it into Canada, and most get approved up to six years later than in the US or Europe,” says Alison Sargent, Chief of Staff and Vice President of Operations at Innovative Medicines Canada.

These delays are due to the complex and sequential nature of Canada’s drug access system—with inefficiencies at nearly every step of the process. After a drug receives Health Canada approval, health technology assessments are conducted to make funding recommendations for public drug plans. After that, public drug pricing negotiations take place through the pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance (pCPA). Finally, provinces and territories determine when to list the drugs on their formularies.

To ensure faster access for Canadians, governments should eliminate the five months of dead time between when a health technology assessment has been completed for a drug and the pCPA starts its review of that drug as a starting point. There is also significant variability in how quickly provinces list a drug on their drug plans following a successful pricing negotiation at the pCPA. A recent Conference Board of Canada study showed that provinces list drugs anywhere from 50 days to almost two years after a completed pCPA negotiation. This delay is hurting patients and provinces should commit to listing a drug within 30 days of a completed pricing negotiation.

Collaborating on the future of healthcare

Canada’s innovative pharmaceutical industry can be a key part of the solution to the healthcare challenges we face, according to Sargent. Health stakeholders, governments, and industry can collaborate towards policies and regulations that help position Canada as an ideal destination for healthcare innovation and life sciences investments.

“Canada has an opportunity to become a global healthcare leader again. The innovative pharmaceutical industry is uniquely positioned to help lead that effort. Given that innovation is at the heart of what drives us as an industry, coupled with our global expertise, we’re ideal partners to help shape the future of healthcare in Canada,” says Sargent.

The industry continues to strive towards improving quality of life for all Canadians while contributing to the country’s total health.

“Not only are we developing treatments and vaccines that help improve the health and wellbeing of the population, but we also contribute significantly to the health of our economy and research ecosystem,” says Sargent. “Our industry contributes nearly $16 billion to the Canadian economy, supports more than 100,000 high-value jobs, sponsors over 2,000 clinical trials, and invests $2.4 billion in research and development each year.”

Beyond the numbers

For Sargent and many of her industry peers, the importance of improving Canada’s healthcare takes on a more personal meaning. Sargent’s 11-year-old daughter suffers from phenylketonuria, a rare disease which can lead to serious brain injuries when not properly managed by a rigorous nutrition routine. As the mother of a child suffering from a rare disease, Sargent fully understands the importance of being able to access cutting-edge new treatments, quickly.

“Beyond the constant danger that hovers over the people we love, new treatments offer hope for a better quality of life. For me, it’s about my child being able to hope for a normal life at their age,” says Sargent. “The wait can be devastating for patients and their families who know that a treatment exists, but they can’t access it because they live here in Canada.”

For parents like Sargent and other caregivers, the innovative pharmaceutical industry is working tirelessly to improve access to life-changing and life-saving treatments. When stakeholders come together and work towards solutions that put patients first, the benefits extend far beyond an individual – and this is what Canadians deserve.


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