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EF: 2020 was the year of diagnostics, and 2021 was the year of vaccines, what do you think 2022 will be the year off?
BN: 2022 will be a year of consolidation and dissemination, reviewing the lessons learnt and the lasting impact that the pandemic has had on our staff and healthcare professionals. We have seen a fundamental change, the world is starting to go back to normal, as AstraZeneca we are committed to playing an active role in transforming healthcare delivery towards building a more resilient, sustainable and value-based healthcare system that can better withstand future shocks and address unmet needs such as the increase of chronic illness and non-communicable diseases.
EF: How can the industry leverage its experiences from the past couple of years in order to navigate its response against this potential new wave?
BN: People's health remains front and centre. We need to ‘act early’ and re-think the way we act to support people’s health. AstraZeneca has been in Africa for over 30 years and we are taking bold action to address some of the biggest healthcare challenges facing humankind, from COVID-19 to the climate crisis, to the rising burden of chronic diseases such as cancer. We see this as part of our responsibility as a public health partner in Africa. It is integral to ensure that major health concerns such as diabetes, asthma, and cancer remain central for healthcare systems by continuing to work with the government and NGOs, and societies to close the gaps in care, working to address equity across all elements of the patient pathway and strengthening health systems, aligning and delivering on national health plans.
EF: How can the industry keep the momentum going with collaborative initiatives?
BN: The pandemic has taught us the importance of collaboration, the power of science and technology, and how public-private partnerships delivered at scale can drive innovation. We must collectively harness this approach and apply the lessons learned to address future challenges to our people, planet and society, including future pandemics.
It is about trying to find more collaboration across the patient journey. For instance, if you are involved with certain diseases, it is important to know who to best work with and partner with to make the footprint bigger. There are other potentials to consider such as the provision of education in rural areas on the signs and symptoms of diseases. It is vital to carry on with collaborations and partnerships along with initiatives such as the ‘By Africa, For Africa’ webinars, broadening our reach to healthcare professionals and empowering patients with the right information to alert them to early symptoms of disease, moving to a system geared towards prevention and early diagnosis.
EF: Could you elaborate on the integrity of education and awareness in South Africa?
BN: Preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases when costs are lower and patient outcomes are better can help to address not only the unsustainable cost of disease – it also has a positive effect from a sustainability perspective.
In South Africa we have our Phakamisa program which has been running for approximately 11 years, aimed at public sector patients. It is centred around the awareness, screening and diagnosis of cancer patients, with a current focus on breast and prostate cancer. Phakamisa includes community initiatives where experts, general practitioners, urologists, and oncologists talk to communities about signs and symptoms of breast and prostate cancer, and work with laboratories to set up screening facilities on-site to identify any risk factors. Through Phakamisa we supported an accredited training programme for breast care nurses in the public sector, providing essential training to conduct initial breast examinations. The initiative forms part of a larger national strategic health project to increase the number of trained Oncology Breast Nurses in all clinics and hospitals throughout the country and will support a prompt referral of patients with breast conditions, therefore reducing waiting time, in line with the Clinical Guidelines for Breast Cancer Control and Management.
EF: What can other companies learn from AstraZeneca's approach to healthcare delivery?
BN: As commercial organizations, there is always a financial responsibility that runs for a financial year, yet while funds may be tight, it is critical to take a long-term view. It requires working at the grassroots level to understand the need and enabling all healthcare workers across the patient journey, working together towards a future where all people have access to sustainable healthcare solutions for life-changing treatment and prevention. At the same time, it is crucial to have a regular process of reviewing your approaches, to enable you to ‘act early’ by sitting down with your partners and assessing the progress and impact of each decision in order to track it and grow it.
EF: Can you elaborate on the key factors behind AstraZeneca's success?
BN: Globally, it was the laser focus on the science and reshaping of the pipeline, which South Africans are benefiting from. AstraZeneca is partnering to implement solutions that take into account holistic outcomes, such as improved prevention and diagnostics, halting of disease progression, patient outcomes and long-term resource use, rooted in robust real-world evidence and data. In Africa, we have a clear alignment to national health goals and our team is focused on health system strengthening to ensure wider access to healthcare. To ensure no one is left behind. This in turn leads to commercial success. Partnerships have had a considerable impact on the sustainability and resilience of health systems.
EF: What is your perspective on the provision of universal healthcare for South Africa?
BN: In South Africa, the public sector provides services to roughly 84% of the population without private health insurance. Driving for a just society with concepts such as equity is important. We have advanced systems in South Africa, however, I believe that other African countries have done more, made attempts and have adjusted what they were doing to serve and bring equity in healthcare provision, and this is what we as South Africans need to work on improving.
Universal Health was an area that was exacerbated in the early days of the pandemic as patients were scared of going back to hospitals. In Africa, it is important that we do not leave our public sector patients behind by using cost-effective home-based care to serve the broader population. We need to bring home care closer to homes, and enable clinics to better serve the community.
EF: How will machine learning and artificial intelligence help in reducing clinical research trials and speed up treatment?
BN: Healthcare is an area in which harnessing technology, data and digital solutions have enormous power to improve health system processes and patient outcomes. We have seen this in action during the COVID-19 pandemic with the rise of digitally-enabled remote consultations, for example, but there is huge potential to go beyond this and leverage digital solutions across the entire healthcare value chain. It is amazing what can be done with patients self-tracking themselves in clinical studies as this gives rich data compared to patients who go in once a month for the measurements they take in the hospital. Technology that supports a more continuous view, is great. The challenge has been on how to make this real for patients in Africa. The pragmatic approach is enabling nurses and doctors by giving them access to the right tools and mechanical equipment and all necessary aspects to take the vital steps for early detection and speedy treatment. I am a firm believer in leveraging digital innovation to enhance inclusion and equity across the healthcare ecosystem.
EF: Can you elaborate on what South Africa means for AstraZeneca globally?
BN: South Africa is the gateway into Africa. It is often where we launch products first, and their health sector is representative of what we see with many of the healthcare systems in other parts of Africa as well. The healthcare system is controlled in terms of pricing and parallel imports. South Africa has a big clinical research team here, currently working across 45 trial sites, which contributes to the strategic importance of the country.
South Africa also has a hub of good quality medical doctors, supported by strong systems and research, with researchers’ peer-reviewed grading dependent on their number of publications, and the impact of those publications from a scientific and a healthcare perspective.
EF: What advice would you give to young women in South Africa regarding a career in executive leadership?
BN: Do not wait for everything to be perfect, just go and make a start, and own your own career. Take a risk and put yourself out there, don’t sit and second-guess yourself. The worst that can happen is the plan not working out or your idea not being liked. Move on from that. Start somewhere, but know that it is okay early on in your career to make some changes. Don't sit and wait for the opportunity. Explore, work in different parts of the world, and take those risks. Look for companies that have mentorship programs, that educate you and take this sponsorship very seriously.
EF: What are you going to celebrate at the end of this year?
BN: Firstly, having a team within AstraZeneca that is fully engaged, and that has a sense of belonging and a connection to our purpose, our vision, and our mission. Then, as part of that vision and mission, is the continuation of partnerships with the government on several projects while also looking at strengthening the healthcare systems. The sustainable projects that stand the test of time will be celebrated.
EF: How do you keep your team engaged in the new age of work?
BN: Engagement comes back to communication, and it is everything from big monthly town halls to small weekly meetings. Having engagement platforms with sales representatives, managers, and leadership teams to keep that continued communication while working with people to understand their contribution to the company's purpose, mission and vision. Socializing outside of work helps with engagement. We have done a lot of work regarding the mental-wellbeing of employees with our senior leadership team and senior management team. We provided employees with counselling services, assuring them that ‘it is okay to not be okay, and allowed them to work in a hybrid model, three days in the office, and two days at home.