Interview with Roche chairman Christoph Franz

Client: Reuters
David Nicholson quizzes Roche Chairman Christoph Franz about the key challenges facing the healthcare sector

For Roche Chairman Christoph Franz, the answer to the world’s growing healthcare challenges lies in stronger global partnerships. He describes the alliance of private sector companies like Roche and national governments, alongside bodies like the World Bank, as “absolutely crucial”.

“The challenges are too complex for either the public or the private sector to address them alone,” says Franz. “It is indispensable to address them jointly in order to overcome inequalities.”

While Roche and fellow pharmaceutical industry leaders invest in developing new innovations and widening access to healthcare, “there must be a commitment from governments to adequately fund healthcare,” he stresses. “It needs to go hand in hand.”

Noting that the challenges of healthcare access vary dramatically from country to country, with funding, infrastructure, healthcare professionals and disease awareness all playing a role, Franz argues that partnerships and collaborations are much the best way to address these issues and to widen access.

To identify patients’ needs and their barriers to healthcare Roche actively seeks out partners who have the knowledge, expertise, relationships and power the company cannot provide on its own, or who can amplify its capabilities.

“We put access at the centre of our business and consider it a key part of our commitment to patients and to society at large,” states Franz. In both Pharmaceuticals and Diagnostics, Roche has set out wide-ranging goals for the future: doubling patient numbers for its medicines in low and medium-income countries (LMICs) by 2026 and doubling patient access to important diagnostic solutions and medical advances by 2030 – at less cost to society.

To achieve these ambitious targets, Roche highlights the vital importance of partnerships: “We are eager to foster an open dialogue between the public sector, private sector and various stakeholders across the healthcare spectrum and ultimately patients to bring our innovations to those who need it the most. Regardless of the location or under which circumstances they live,” says Franz.

Geographical fortune – where access to healthcare depends upon where someone lives – has blighted many communities throughout history. Recent advances in technology such as telemedicine and remote consultation mean that such distinctions are reducing.

“I firmly believe in utilising new technologies in healthcare to improve patient outcomes. Telecommunication for example has enabled physicians to reach patients who can’t physically show up for consultation. We can now take pictures of our moles and send it to a dermatologist who will then analyse it and inform us if it looks abnormal. The pandemic has shown that telemedicine was and is a key tool for people around the world to take care of their health and stay in contact with healthcare professionals.”

Nevertheless, patients in LMICs may lack access to technology, along with appropriate disease awareness – something that the global pandemic has exacerbated, according to Franz, leading to higher global health inequalities. Roche sees its role as identifying how individuals can benefit from its innovations, to improve their health and potential save their life.

“Is it funding? Is it healthcare capacity? Is it awareness or diagnosis?” he asks. “Over the years we have learned it is usually a combination and we can only overcome these challenges by aiming at multiple targets,” Increasing the number of healthcare workers on its own may not solve the problem, if there is low disease awareness. Equally: “You can’t expect people to seek medical consultation if it is not clear how this will be paid for. Nobody wants to go bankrupt,” says Franz.

Roche devotes substantial resources to widening access to healthcare in LMICs, where more than half the world’s population lives. “We support universal health coverage,” says Franz. He cites the company’s Global Access Program as a particularly impactful initiative, helping to overcome limited access to diagnostic solutions. Since its launch in 2014, this program now runs in more than 80 countries and includes testing for tuberculosis, hepatitis B and C, Covid-19 and human papillomavirus. 

Above all, Franz urges all healthcare stakeholders to form closer partnerships to tackle barriers to access. “Let’s come together to share, discuss and work together,” he says. “We are all part of the solution.” 

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