People living with serious and life-threatening diseases have been profoundly impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. This impact has been felt whether a person or their family has dealt with the disease directly or its many associated problems, including loss of employment and insurance coverage, reduced access to healthcare providers or concerns over the supply of their medicines.
On a typical day outside of the current health crisis, members of Genentech’s Access Solutions team help people who take our medicines in a variety of ways — from providing information about insurance coverage to connecting those in need with the Genentech Patient Foundation and other support programs that may be able to help with out-of-pocket expenses. Last year alone, we served more than 287,000 people and the Genentech Patient Foundation provided free medicine to more than 50,000 patients.
At the beginning of March, along with the majority of other Genentech employees, our team began working from home, answering these and other patient questions raised by COVID-19: Where can I get my infusion now that services have been limited at my local hospital? I am concerned about supply for my medication and wondering about home delivery? I’ve lost my job and no longer have health insurance, what options are available to me?
Though our support services weren’t explicitly designed to withstand the challenges of a global pandemic, we’ve been pleased to discover that — with a handful of changes — they were robust enough to weather the challenges this situation has created. We flexed quickly to meet patient needs: extending our operating hours of our Medical Communications Line to 24/7; expanding our Genentech Patient Foundation eligibility criteria to include non-U.S. patients staying in the U.S. due to travel restrictions (under a U.S. physician’s care); extending the supply of self-administered medicines for Genentech Patient Foundation patients; and simplifying enrollment processes to include options to submit online or via text message.
We did not need to overhaul our financial eligibility criteria or make sweeping changes to meet the demands of the pandemic, because our patient support services were already designed to support the daily challenges faced by patients in the United States. In fact, many of the healthcare access issues that patients experience are not new and have only been exacerbated by COVID-19. And beyond the solutions that our support services provide to help people get the Genentech medicines they need, many issues remain that impact overall access to care. Looking back on the past few months in particular, some key issues to address that are top of mind for me include:
1. Leveraging Technology
Many healthcare providers still rely on 20th-century communications technology — paper forms, fax machines, landlines. To ensure patients’ care wouldn’t be delayed due to their providers’ offices closing, we adapted streamlined online enrollment processes and are extending new communication platforms including chat, email, and text that can be leveraged from anywhere. We are kicking off new efforts aimed at full digital engagement and ramping up our work to enable secure and appropriate data transfers across platforms. Now that technologies such as telemedicine and data integration across stakeholders have suddenly become less of a convenience and more of a necessity, how can we build upon this experience to finally retire the fax machine and expedite access to care?
2. Including Patient Voices
We included patients at each stage of the development process for our new digital platforms. Rather than basing solutions on our assumptions about what they wanted, we invited them to participate in prototyping sessions and test user interfaces before launch. The result was something that provides real value grounded in actual patient needs. While there’s no doubt we all care deeply about putting the patient first, getting that right in practice requires deep engagement. How might our healthcare system change for the better by including patient voices more regularly in its design?
3. Helping Patients Become Savvy Healthcare Consumers
Navigating the hugely complex world of health insurance is one of the biggest roadblocks to access for patients that my team sees on a daily basis, within and beyond the pandemic. Now with staggering loss of insurance, we see many patients struggling with where to go for even basic information on insurance options now that they are unemployed. How can we encourage greater transparency and education for patients so that they are empowered to make smart decisions and protect their rights?
4. Navigating Site of Care
Health insurance coverage is only one of the access challenges we see patients facing. An increasing number of patients are struggling to identify an infusion site that is close to home, integrated with their treatment team, and covered by their health plan benefits. During this national public health emergency, we see an increasing number of patients and caregivers seeking support for alternate infusion location options due to capacity constraints or closures of primary infusion/injection sites. In response, we have launched new support services to help patients and their healthcare teams identify appropriate alternate infusion sites. How might we collaborate across the healthcare sector to make it easier for patients to quickly identify a site of treatment that will work for them, their physicians and their insurance plan?
5. Investing Beyond Healthcare
Recognizing that healthcare costs are just one of the issues patients face during times of financial instability, Genentech and the Genentech Foundation committed $42 million to address the immediate and long-term effects of COVID-19. Part of this grant has been earmarked for community foundations that provide food and housing security as well as childcare and financial assistance to low-income households and communities of color. Working in partnership with our Advocacy Relations team, Genentech Access Solutions is piloting a program to help connect patients to these external resources. How can investments beyond healthcare relieve pressure on the system and improve patient outcomes overall?
Progress against such substantial issues will not happen overnight. But I do believe COVID-19 has delivered a shock to our system that cannot be ignored. There will be an opportunity to ask big questions, to assess what’s working and what’s not, and to prioritize actions that have long been neglected. And, as we examine the lessons learned from the pandemic, my hope is that a silver lining of this devastating situation will be meaningful change for all who depend upon our healthcare system in the future.