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Navigating effects of COVID-19 on the medical device industry

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Interview with Marzena Kulis, Managing Director of Johnson & Johnson’s Medical Devices Middle East

Due to COVID-19, a number of people had to defer their medical treatment, and this has the potential to impact the healthcare sector greatly. In fact, a recent McKinsey report found that 40 per cent of individuals cancelled upcoming appointments, routine check-ups or treatment for chronic conditions. The pandemic created a heavy toll on healthcare systems around the world, which directly influenced hospital capacities and the ability for patients to seek care for a number of diseases.

Delaying routine or preventative screenings was understandable during the onset of the pandemic, especially with patients resorting to effective telehealth services. It is, however, alarming that the detection, prevention and treatment of diseases have been postponed across the globe; this could have detrimental consequences with significant public health risks.

In an interview with Omnia Health Magazine, Marzena Kulis, Managing Director of Johnson & Johnson’s Medical Devices Middle East, discusses how to tackle these impending healthcare challenges and elevate the standard of care in the region. Excerpts:

According to you, what has been COVID-19’s impact on some of the region’s top diseases?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), during the three-month peak of COVID-19 in 2020, over 28 million elective surgeries across the globe were cancelled, whilst 38 per cent of global cancer surgeries were postponed or cancelled.

The Middle East has seen a sharper decline in elective surgeries than Europe and the United States, with some procedures affected more than others. Bariatric, some orthopaedics and plastic surgeries have been among the hardest hit, with trauma and some cardiovascular procedures seeing less of an impact.

There are countless stories of missed trauma surgeries, deferred cancer treatments and undetected conditions that if left untreated could evolve into complex problems that impact patients’ quality of life. As hospitals gradually return to normal operations and more people get vaccinated, we expect a backlog of surgeries to be carried out.

Earlier in 2020, we anticipated this global challenge and launched our My Health Can’t Wait initiative, a patient education effort and comprehensive resource hub aimed at inspiring people to prioritise their health and improve understanding of how and when to pursue care. The My Health Can’t Wait website places an emphasis on getting patients to understand the urgency of addressing their health needs and the options available for routine pre- and post-operation care, whilst also helping them to recognise the potentially harmful impacts of delaying care.

We are broadly optimistic about the future and are committed to working with our partners and stakeholders to ensure the seamless improvement of surgery line-up without compromising patient outcomes. Empowering people to make the right health choice is critical to our mission of changing the trajectory of human health, and we will leave no stone unturned to help our patients receive the care they need.

What would you say is the current impact of connectivity on the delivery of healthcare?

Connectivity continues to play a critical role in enhancing the quality of healthcare by improving patient access, enabling remote diagnosis and monitoring, and boosting the efficiency of care delivery.

Furthermore, technological advancements in the connectivity space are transforming the day-to-day tasks in healthcare facilities, like inventory and stock management and the distribution and tracking of medication. This frees up both clinical and non-clinical staff, allowing them to focus their time and efforts on what matters the most, delivering the best care for patients.

Enhanced connectivity also allows patients to have continuous and remote access to healthcare services from the comfort and safety of their homes in the form of telehealth. This is particularly helpful for people who are at high-risk if infected with COVID-19, and also for those who have limited mobility or those who live in remote or isolated communities. Likewise, the use of telehealth can support healthcare institutions by reducing the pressure on patient care facilities in times of high demand, whilst also protecting the safety of front-line healthcare workers by limiting unnecessary exposure.

What are some of the challenges that medical devices companies will face in the coming months?

The impact of the pandemic is still very fluid, but Johnson & Johnson (J&J) was built for times like this and has grown through many global crises. We have robust plans in place across our global supply chain network to prepare for unforeseen events and spikes in demand so that we can meet the needs of the patients, customers and consumers who depend on our products.

One challenge that we are currently seeing is increasing access to healthcare in less developed parts of the MENA region. Since we first entered the Middle East market in the 1980s, we’ve brought our medical devices to many under-served communities in the region. Our Credo (Latin for ‘I believe’) is our set of guiding values and it challenges us to put the needs and well-being of the people we serve first – to be a positive force in the world.

Additionally, medical devices companies across the world are and will continue to face the illicit trade of medical devices. This has been heightened throughout the pandemic as healthcare is at the forefront of the global agenda. Our Global Brand Protection team in the region works 24/7 behind the scenes with the law enforcement authorities, manufacturers, data scientists, customs officials and many others to ensure our patients, consumers and products are safeguarded against all forms of illicit trade, including counterfeit, diversion and tampering.

How, in your opinion, can businesses operate efficiently in the new normal?

The pandemic impacted every area of our lives, which meant that all businesses needed to adjust and respond quickly, especially in the healthcare sector. At J&J Medical Devices, we were agile and responsive to ensure uninterrupted communications amongst healthcare professionals. The organisation was quick to adopt technology to maintain the frequency and depth of interactions with healthcare professionals despite physical distancing measures.

A key component of this is company culture. At J&J, we are driven by a fundamental sense of purpose that originates from our Credo. We were able to connect, engage, and find inspiration from one another because of our united sense of purpose – to change the trajectory of human health. It is this collaborative mindset that has allowed us to operate efficiently in the new normal so that we can focus on serving those who depend on us.

Marzena Kulis - Managing Director - Johnson and Johnson Medical Devices, Middle East.JPG

Marzena Kulis

What, according to you, are the major healthcare market segments that are likely to expand this year, and why is this so?

Emerging market economies continue to see the highest growth in healthcare provision across the globe. This growth spans across many different healthcare segments, but we are seeing the largest expansion in areas such as the treatment of obesity, colorectal cancer, strokes and orthopaedics.

These are being driven by a number of trends, including an increasingly ageing population across the region compounded by the global pandemic causing people to adopt more sedentary lifestyles.

Obesity is one of the most prevalent diseases in the region, with 31.7 per cent and 35.4 per cent of the population affected by it in the UAE and Saudi Arabia respectively. And unfortunately, the incidence of obesity in the Middle East is expected to rise by as much as 110 per cent to 82 million patients in 2045. Education and awareness are key and if they are prioritised in the coming years, we could see an increase in the adoption of multi-disciplinary approaches in the treatment of obesity.

Although it is a preventable and curable cancer, colorectal cancer (CRC) is the second most common cancer in the UAE, KSA and Kuwait. It is the leading cause of cancer-related mortality in the region. The coming year will likely see increased awareness and screening to advance early diagnosis and treatment, as this can significantly improve patient outcomes.

Strokes are among the leading causes of death globally and present a great burden on healthcare systems. This is no different in the region, and sadly only 8 per cent of those affected by a stroke receive treatment in the EMEA region (Europe, Middle East, Asia). This year will see greater effort being made to make the general populations more aware of the symptoms and the urgency with which one should seek treatment.

With economic and social activity likely to pick up throughout the year as the world deals with the pandemic, traumatic injuries resulting from incidents such as road traffic accidents or sporting accidents have the potential to rise. This, combined with an ageing population demographic and a high incidence of obesity, could result in more people needing surgeries such as hip and knee replacements. With one of the most comprehensive orthopaedics portfolios in the world, J&J is well placed to deal with this – people have been walking on our hips and knees for decades.

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