What do Formula 1 and EU access to medicines have in common? Turns out 4 key “drivers” (Guest blog)

For those of you who know me personally, I am an F1 fan and have been since before I could drive. Aside from the thrill of the sport, each race is unique, entirely unpredictable and bursting with suspense, from the second the engines start humming to the gust of wind as the cars take their final lap.

I find the draw of race day so intense that nearly every year, I find myself traveling to Monaco to be as close to the action as possible. There’s something about the sharp curves of the racetrack, the distinct scent of oil, fuel and rubber in the air, and the palpable energy of the crowd as a car hurtles into sight at top speed that keeps bringing me back year after year. It goes without saying COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in these plans for the current and past season, but I look forward to returning to the track when vaccination rates will enable us to safely spectate together.

With the 2021 F1 World Championship starting just a few months ago, I was struck by a flash of insight as I watched the early season.  I noticed:

  • How F1 engineers outdo themselves to be as innovative as possible
  • How teams coordinate with millisecond precision during each pitstop
  • How the rules adapt to ensure that the drivers remain as safe as they are competitive

And I started to realize that the healthcare sector and the F1 industry hold many similarities, which may not surprise you if you are someone who draws the comparison between competitive sports and healthcare normally. From my perspective, F1 shares similar “drivers” that may help us improve the way that medicines are innovated and delivered to EU citizens. 

Driver 1: Innovation must fuel the core of the business

Both F1 and the healthcare sector are driven by innovation. Season after season, F1 engineers must constantly innovate to ensure their cars remain the fastest, most powerful and efficient on the racetrack. To stay at the top of their game, they invent and test new technology and materials from steering wheel systems to the use of carbon fiber, while also seeking to improve protocols to reduce pit stop times… the list goes on and on. Some of these cutting edge F1 technologies are even used in hospitals, supermarkets or supply chains today.

Such an emphasis on innovation is also at the core of the healthcare sector. For example, there are new types of treatment for cancer patients which just a few years ago would have been science fiction. If we look at the Novartis pipeline alone, we have 8 immuno-oncology compounds in development. This research is notably supported through the Novartis AI innovation lab in collaboration with Microsoft, which strives to turn patients’ cells into cancer fighting machines. While innovation may help to win races in F1, it saves lives in healthcare.

Driver 2: Collaboration. Races are won by teams not the drivers alone 

F1 drivers are not solely responsible for a win. Even though they are the ones driving the car on race day, it is undeniable that team effort plays a crucial role in their success. From strategists to analysts, engineers, and sponsors, many minds (and hands) are required to cross the finish line.

Have you ever seen a pit stop? When a car needs to change tires, it returns to a pit where more than 15 people are waiting to help, each to the best of their competencies. In 2019, Red Bull Racing performed the fastest pit stop ever, clocking in at 1.82 seconds!

Such collaboration is also necessary in the healthcare sector. The latter should be working as an ecosystem with national governments, patient associations, industry and EU-policy makers collaborating for a common goal: delivering safe medicines and treatments to European citizens who need them. Healthcare stakeholders need to work together, in the same way F1 teams work: as one entity pursuing the same goal.

Driver 3: Rules which foster competition are needed

While there is no doubt F1 teams and the healthcare sector are both extremely competitive, it’s important to remember they are also extremely regulated. There are countless rules teams must follow during an F1 race, from the way that cars may overtake each other to how drivers must adapt when there is an accident on the track. Such restrictions aren’t in place to stop the racers, but rather exist to ensure drivers are safe and that competition can continue well past 60 laps.

This lesson is different from the first two. It reveals an opportunity for the European healthcare sector. The current rules by which the sector operates some say, notoriously stifle competition through cumbersome regulation. They claim this causes operations to move at a slower “every-day pace” instead of the preferred high-speed race-day pace.

Driver 4: Speed matters

Studies have shown that the European Medicines Agency is significantly slower than its American counterpart:

For 29 cancer medicines approved by the European Medicines Agency between 2006 and 2011, the median approval time was 6.0 months in the U.S, compared to 13.3 months in Europe

More recently, a paper found the overall median approval time for anticancer drugs and immunomodulators varied from 240 days for the FDA to 423 days in Europe. That’s a long time to be waiting at the finish line for something that can impact the quality of your life.

I agree that medicines’ approval is our sector’s utmost priority. We do what we do to offer patients a better chance at life without disease, and we cannot do that without the scientific work of agencies reviewing our evidence. But rules, as necessary as they are, must not be implemented at the expense of competition or innovation. We want rules which are fair and that help the healthcare sector innovate and remain as competitive as it can be.

Let’s #EUnite and race ahead for the future

As the EU Commission reviews its legislation as part of its new Pharmaceutical Strategy, could it draw inspiration from F1? It would allow policymakers to encourage innovation, drive the healthcare sector through collaboration and ensure products are safe and effective in the race to deliver medicines and therapies to European citizens.

Such a vision for the future of European healthcare should become reality, which is why Novartis launched #EUnite earlier this year. This movement calls on stakeholders across the healthcare sector to collaborate and build a healthcare ecosystem that is sustainable, digital, and innovative.

After our first meeting in April, we agreed a paradigm shift is needed in the way we think about healthcare and decided to take this vision further. On June 29, 30 and July 1, 2021, we are organizing a one-of-a-kind roundtable series during #EUnite Week. These conversations will ask panelists and participants to contribute their voices to the #EUnite vision as to how we can unlock the European healthcare ecosystem together.

As an F1 fan and #EUnite advocate, I can’t help but think this healthcare ecosystem could bring life-saving medical solutions to patients as fast as Max Verstappen wins his Grand Prix. Join the conversation here:

Kees Roks

Kees Roks is Head of Region (Europe) at Novartis Oncology
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