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Editor's take – health care and life sciences: Bumpy pandemic progress, an Alzheimer’s drug that may not help and worries for the future

The reading habits of SmartBrief's health care and life sciences audiences provide a unique window into the priorities and interests of professionals across these industries, and our newsletter engagement data also sheds light on what's keeping our readers up at night. We serve health care insurers, clinicians and IT professionals, as well as audiences in pharma and medtech. Here's what was top of mind for all of them in Q2, as well as a look at what's next.

COVID-19 continues

COVID-19 continued to dominate the news in the second quarter, with US cases rising again after having fallen -- despite the ongoing vaccine rollout. While breakthrough cases were seen even after vaccination, most COVID-19 deaths in US involved the unvaccinated. Misinformation and mistrust have led to vaccine hesitancy, particularly in certain areas and populations, and the CDC has warned that the US vaccination gap could delay the end of the pandemic.

What’s next: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci has said the Delta variant, now the most common in the US, is the greatest threat to ending the pandemic. The variant currently accounts for 26.1% of US COVID-19 cases and the CDC has declared it a “variant of concern” because it spreads more easily and causes more severe symptoms. Experts have said that herd immunity is probably unattainable in the foreseeable future, but that vaccination efforts might succeed in restoring normalcy. Fortunately, new data show protection from mRNA COVID-19 vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech could last for years.

Aduhelm approval

The biggest health care controversy during Q2 was the FDA’s approval of Biogen’s Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm under the accelerated approval pathway. The decision came despite the fact that trial data did not meet the agency’s criteria for standard approval. The drug drew additional criticism for its price tag, and estimates indicate Medicare could send up spending billions on it. The approval brought calls for the removal of FDA execs, and three FDA advisory panel members resigned in a show of disapproval. FDA officials have tried to tamp the controversy by explaining the decision, saying data “consistently show that the drug reduces amyloid plaque in the brain.”

The Aduhelm saga came amid ongoing concerns about rising health care costs in the US:

  • An analysis found Medicare Part D’s spending on “ultra-expensive drugs” has soared from 2012 to 2018
  • The Health Resources and Services Administration ordered six drugmakers to repay health care providers who were overcharged under the 340B discount drug program
  • A report from the House Oversight and Reform Committee found AbbVie had engaged in anticompetitive pricing practices to block competition and repeatedly increase the prices of its drugs.

Hospitals are also in the spotlight, and an analysis from Johns Hopkins University found 57 of the 100 largest US hospitals charge more than 5 times the actual cost, on average, of care provided.

What’s next:

Health care costs may climb even higher in the short- to medium-term due to COVID-19. PwC’s Health Research Institute predicts employer medical costs will rise 6.5% next year, driven in large part by delayed care and other pandemic-related issues. And while lawmakers are taking steps to address health care costs, health policy researchers have warned that some surprise billing laws may push prices higher. Meanwhile, five Blue Cross Blue Shield health plans have decided to take action themselves, creating a spinoff that aims to match drug cost to performance with an eye toward reducing drug prices. As for Aduhelm, two House panels have announced plans to probe the drug’s approval and pricing.

Looming health care crises

As the US struggles to emerge from the pandemic, the second quarter brought signs that there may be another health care crisis looming in the form of worsening burnout and shortages that have been exacerbated by COVID-19. More attacks against nurses and clinicians were reported during the pandemic and half of intern physicians report work-related trauma. Amid these stressors, three in 10 health care workers say they have considered leaving health care, and about six in 10 say the pandemic has harmed their mental health. Even public health leaders have faced threats over their COVID-19 actions and policies.

What’s next:

Going forward, these problems could have a significant impact on the US health care landscape. The country faces a shortage of up to 139K physicians by 2033. Nursing shortages are also expected to worsen in 2022, with more demanded of those that remain. At the same time, the health care system may see localized COVID-19 surges in areas with low vaccination rates.

Despite this outlook, there are opportunities to improve both health care provider and patient well-being. For example, coaching programs can help support psychological well-being and build resistance among health care workers during stressful times. For patients, public health agencies and health insurance companies have an opportunity to address health inequities brought to the forefront during the pandemic. Health insurance industry leaders participating in a recent SmartBrief roundtable agreed that payers have a key role in addressing health care disparities and advancing a whole-person model for health care that acknowledges the importance of mental health.

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More top news

Check out a snapshot of more top health care and life sciences stories from Q2 below.