Wednesday, December 16, 2020

LEADING IN THE AGE OF UNCERTAINTY

A year ago, it was still possible to make equivalencies between the coming new year and a clear-sighted future — 20/20 for 2020. In December 2019, things still seemed manageable, predictable even. But by March, grasping at that hoped-for clarity could only have felt like trying to juggle water without getting wet.

2020 will be a hard year to forget. Our sense of purpose and faith in the path forward were as much casualties of the pandemic as the individual lives held in the balance. Uncertainty became the only certainty and the pivot was elevated to a near-universal imperative. 

The lessons we’ve learned about ourselves this year are hard won. We need to own them. True leadership will depend on it.

It’s never been just about health care (but that too)

The pandemic has forced us to confront many of our longest debated issues and reevaluate mistaken perceptions about society.

In 2019, socio-economic interest was focused on Industry 4.0 and the digitalization of organizations. AI, automation and upskilling workforces against tech-driven redundancy were the hot-button topics.

These concerns haven’t gone away but they have taken a back seat to epiphanies about what societies truly need to keep purring along. Workers once considered unskilled (or at least relegated to our secondary thoughts) have now proven themselves essential to the smooth functioning of contemporary life. A disproportionate amount of responsibility for keeping things running has fallen to the least rewarded, least secure, least cared-for members of our societies. We need to find ways to correct that.

The simple fact of defending society’s welfare will be a huge part of that. Initiatives that seek to increase equity across the various spheres and arm us against future upheaval are what’s called for. It might be Universal Basic Income, or a refocusing on accessible preventative medicine, or some still-more ingenious solution. Time will tell.

2020 has shown what results we can expect from a “one step forward, two steps back” approach, or waiting for others to lead the way. Preparedness starts at home and we know now that we all have a part to play.

As we revisit the umbrella topic of Industry 4.0, this new understanding will necessarily reframe the steps we take going forward. As a central pillar of this, the healthcare and life science spheres should take advantage of this opportunity to innovate and raise the standard. If not, it’s only a matter of time before we court disaster again.

We surprised ourselves

The crisis has demanded more of us than at any other time in more than five generations. Individually, yes, societally and institutionally too, no doubt, but especially in health care and life sciences. At a time of great need and uncertainty, industry knowledge and expertise has rallied to meet those challenges, shoring up frontline defences and setting unprecedented records in treatment, prevention and detection. 

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals’ speedy turnaround on the REGN-COV2 antibody cocktail is only marginally less impressive than BioNtech’s (along with Pfizer) fast pivot from cancer therapy to mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. And these are just a few of the solutions we’ll see through 2021, at a pace shattering all previous records by several years. 

The recent IPOs of AbCellera Biologics and Certara are ample evidence that Biotech is primed to make even more waves in the new year.

Medtech seems similarly poised to confound expectation, not just in device development and production but in more disruptive ways as well. The MIT Open Voice Medicine project has seen early success using an AI-based app to detect COVID-19 infection from the sound of a person’s cough. This is driving sector interest in the broader possibilities of AI-assisted cough analysis.


Going Forward – The Work To Be Done

Even as we achieve records in treatment, prevention and detection research, seeing those reflected in widespread real-world benefits will still be a challenge. Manufacturing, distribution and deployment all have hurdles to overcome, on a purely logistical level.

Jockeying for access to vaccines and treatments between countries, and even between states or provinces, will need to be addressed carefully on the private sector side — balancing expectations, being clear about achievable targets, and access equity.

Countering misinformation and distrust of science will be a greater hurdle than any of us would care to accept. Overcoming research timelines, bureaucratic bottlenecks and logistical roadblocks can only take us as far as that last critical mile to the patient. Building trust with those who — irrationally or otherwise — won’t accept treatment is going to be an ongoing mission for the healthcare and life sciences sector.

Acknowledging the weaknesses that pandemic exposed in our healthcare systems is just the first step. Leading from the front is going to be imperative in the coming years. If government deadlock and institutional heel-dragging binds the gears of progress, people will look to the private sector for the ingenuity and initiative to drive substantive solutions in areas like elder care (both home care and long-term care), telemedicine, public health access, preventative medicine, physician interaction, and a more patient-centred path to financialization.

2020 in the rear view — parting thoughts

The pandemic has created a humanitarian crisis unprecedented in our lifetimes, one that will be felt generationally. It’s tempting to want to use any short-term successes to push for a return to normalcy. But “normalcy” itself is a concept under scrutiny. Returning to a pre-COVID status quo is no longer desirable or advisable.

Trends in society leading up to the crisis, and those catalyzed through the past year, show that what people are really looking for is positive change, not a return to a previous “good enough” standard. What is wanted from all the promises of jetpacks and robo-servants, digitalization and globalization, is for these to materialize into tangible day-to-day benefits — for humans. Needfully, public policy will move in that direction, as the world moves into an age of post-COVID recovery. “Build back better” will be much more than a campaign slogan.

There’s significant opportunity in that, for those who reach for it. Across health care and the life sciences, from biotech to pharma and beyond, here is an opportunity to take that reserve of in-house intelligence and seed it into outward-facing manifestations — to the benefit of humanity and shareholders alike.

That clear-eyed view of tomorrow isn’t out of reach. For all the muddled policies and staggering miscalculations that have characterized this year — explicitly because of them, even — a new and better course is coming into focus. It’s a matter of what we take away from 2020. After all, 20/20 hindsight is only a bad thing if we never turn around and use it to redefine what’s coming next.


Best wishes to you this holiday season and stay safe.

________

Howard Pezim

Managing Director, North American Healthcare Practice

Darren Raycroft

Partner & Lead, North American Healthcare Practice