Perspectives on Global Health from Pharmacists Around the World

As healthcare continues to morph and adapt based on the requirements of kind, compassionate, evidence-based care, pharmacists are playing a vital role in ensuring patients needs are met in countless regions across the earth. In this four-part IH Blog series, these roles accompanied by profession-related challenges and pharmacist-led global health initiatives will be explored within a profession that is often underappreciated. The following perspectives, shared by practicing pharmacy professionals from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), India, Cambodia, and the United States of America (USA) aim at highlighting various aspects of healthcare that should be properly addressed by governmental bodies, NGOs, and all stakeholders by both sustainable political will and empowering solutions. This initial segment focuses on medication access in each of these areas and the thoughts that pharmacists from these respective nation states have been willing to share with IH Connect.

Throughout both developed and developing healthcare systems, access to medications is consistently a top priority for pharmacists and health care systems. As this health care profession attempts to provide services that meet the needs of their communities, access deficiencies habitually impede the ability to follow through with individualized and compassionate care. The lack of access to life altering chemical entities can affect anyone anywhere, from an affluent metropolitan city like Washington D.C. to a small rural Cambodian village in the province of Kampot. Despite the differences in these locations, each of these instances cause significant harm, breed mistrust in healthcare professionals, and create despair among those that seek healing. These frustrating situations are due to intensify because of the increased strain on medical resources who take a “do-what-has-always-been-done” approach. These following four pharmacists, all from various corners of this vast planet, will describe the barriers they consistently face regarding medication access and initiatives that are being undergone to ensure that a novel approach is commenced to address this looming medical tragedy.

Nazgul Bashir, B. Pharm

Registered Pharmacist – Super Care Pharmacy

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Before discussing medication access in the United Arab Emirates, I would like to give a brief introduction about the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It is a middle eastern country with a population of 9.68 million. The country is comprised of seven emirates and healthcare in UAE is regulated both federally & at the Emirate level. 

Now, starting with the topic on hand about medication access in UAE, there are several factors that have an impact on it and I will touch on them individually and in detail. 

First and foremost, I think the most important factor is the number of medications available in UAE. The majority of medications available in UAE are imported drugs. UAE imports pharmaceutical products from 72 different countries. Of those, 10 countries constitute approximately 80% of the entire country’s supply. The domestic sector is rather small; however the UAE Ministry of Health (MOH) plans to increase the number of pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities to 30 by 2020 up from 16 in 2017. Availability of different medication combinations or different strengths are difficult to find due to the limited number of industries in UAE. One such example is oral prednisolone, which in UAE is available in strengths of 1mg, 5mg, 10mg & 20mg. In the USA, there are more strengths available including 1mg, 2.5mg, 5mg, 10mg, 20mg and 50mg. Tourists or expats coming from overseas that need a particular medicine or medicine combination or a particular strength may not find it available.

The second hindrance to medication access is the cost of medications. There are many reasons for the high cost medication. The aforementioned fact that about 80% of medications in UAE are being imported rather than locally manufactured is one reason. Another reason is an insignificant availability of generic medicines as the majority of medicines available are brand name. The final reason is the national health insurance model. Because all national citizens do not have to pay for their own medications, there is no incentive to keep the medicine prices low. As a result, individuals who are not insured under the public national insurance system, for example expats and tourists, face a huge barrier to obtaining medicines. 

With these barriers in mind, initiatives have started to take place in UAE to find a solution. The government reduced 24% of the prices for 8732 medicines over the course of 6 years. Another initiative which took place is increasing the number of generic medicines while also advising physicians and pharmacists to dispense the generic rather than the branded medicines. Through this initiative, generic medicines now account for 30% of the overall pharmaceutical market which has increased from 12% of the market two years ago. If the UAE can bump these numbers up to 70-80% of the overall market in UAE, the UAE will be seen in better position in terms of generic medicines. 

I am glad to be a part of a region where these issues are actively tackled, not just by the government but by private sectors as well. We are also seeing that pharmacists are playing a larger role, providing information on availability of cheaper alternatives on medicines. Pharmacists are the most accessible healthcare professional and it should be part of their responsibility to help make medicines as accessible as possible to their clients.

 Dr. Bryce Adams, Pharm D., RPh.

Oncology Medical Science Liaison

Washington D.C., United States of America

Although there are a host of issues surrounding access to medications, I will be focusing on oncology medications as oncology is my current specialty as a medical science liaison in the USA. 

To begin, I would like to highlight encouraging statistics that show the accessibility of oncology medications in the USA. A recent 2019 study found that 96% of new cancer medications were available within the United States, the next highest nation was at 71%. Furthermore, the average delay in the availability of cancer medications within the United States was 3 months, with the next closest nation being at 9 months.

In terms of novel and innovative treatment options, oncology drugs have been increasingly approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) throughout the last few years. The FDA has enacted policy changes to attempt to increase the efficiency of drug reviews. The results have been significant – in 2017 alone, 46 new oncology drugs were approved. Moreover, from 1991 to 2016 there was a 27% decrease in cancer related deaths in large part to the expanded and more targeted-based therapy. The chance that a patient will live for 5 or more years has increased by 41% since 1975.

Outside of regular treatment options of those living with cancer, patients have the ability to participate in a clinical trial. Currently, there are 24,351 clinical trials listed as active (defined as not yet recruiting, recruiting, enrolling by invitation, or active) – 11,813 of those trials are active in the United States. However, even with the surplus of ongoing clinical trials, it still seems there is a lack of patient enrollment. It is estimated that roughly 70% of patients are interested in clinical trials, and yet <5% of patients actually enroll in clinical trials. Some of these barriers to enrollment include: lack of availability at a specific clinic, lack of a specific trial available, patient ineligibility, physician is unaware of trials/not offering them to patients, and a patient deciding not to enroll in a clinical trial (perhaps due to a fear of receiving the placebo).

An aforementioned barrier to cancer treatment that needs to be emphasized is the locations of specialized cancer clinics. Studies have shown that patients who are diagnosed with advanced staged cancer are likely required to drive an hour or more to the nearest cancer clinic for the appropriate care they need. Additionally, travel distance may affect treatment decisions. A patient may select a slightly less efficacious therapy if that means they have to travel less often. 

Two initiatives have recently been instituted to further increase the accessibility of medications. First, in an effort to go towards value-based contracting, some companies are beginning to only charge patients if their medications are effective. While this is a rarity, it will be interesting to follow the impacts of this on other more costly treatments and to determine the impact on patients. Secondly, in 2018, the right to try act was passed. This essentially gives terminally ill patients who are unable to enroll in a clinical trial and have no other remaining FDA approved options, access to other treatments. While this is a relatively new policy and there are some restrictions, hopefully it will give patients hope and additional treatment options. 

Dr. Moeung Sotheara, Ph.D. 

Clinical Research Assistant & Part Time Lecturer – University of Health Sciences

Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

In rural Cambodia, access to medication is especially limited when compared to urban areas. Access is limited by two main factors in these communities. Firstly, many people living in rural areas have low incomes which means it is difficult for poor rural individuals to buy medicines for serious illnesses. Secondly, community drug outlets and public health facilities are generally concentrated in the provincial capitals/cities, making it difficult for people from rural, remote areas to get access to those places. 

Usually, medicines imported from other Asian countries such as India, China, Vietnam, Thailand, or Malaysia are cheaper and therefore, more accessible. These cheaper medications, however, tend to be held toward a lower quality standard which can lead to disease state progression, antibiotic resistance, and other situations that can inflict harm onto patients. However, western brand medicines, which are usually held to a higher standard of quality, are less accessible because their prices are higher. Locally, they are generally considered “medicines for the rich.”

The lack of access due to  these aforementioned barriers makes diseases difficult or impossible to treat in cases where medication is necessary to cure it. Patients may see their disease aggravated and could die of it.

In order to address these medication access complications, a specialized team should be created that assists patients or their relatives to get medication which is far from their home and provide a specific loan with very low or no interest rate for villagers who cannot afford to buy medicines. This approach has been initiated in Cambodia through the increased access of health equity funds (HEF). These funds, allocated to individuals unable to afford the out-of-pocket expenses for public services, are pooled from a variety of sources like the national health budget and various donors. These patients are then given a specialized card to receive these funds when public services are used. The HEF focuses on addressing low medication access through the initial financing as aforementioned, community support, quality assurance, and finally policy dialogue. The results of this project have been promising – there was a 28% increase of patients utilizing public services with HEF than before without the HEF. In addition, the patients were not perceived to be more stigmatized within their communities.  

Veda Peddisetti, B. Pharm.

Clinical Pharmacist – Satya Sree Clinic & Diagnostics 

Hyderabad, India 

India is the largest country in South Asia and the second most populous country (1.35 billion) in the world. In addition, India is said to be in the third stage of demographic transition with birth rates declining and death rates decreasing. In the past few decades, India has experienced monumental population growth. This has led to many problems in healthcare management throughout the country, in particular, medication access. The direct cause seems to be the over-demand of medications. However, various indirect causes include poverty, varying per-capita incomes, unemployment, and out of pocket expenditures (India doesn’t have an established federal healthcare insurance system like Medicare in the USA, National Health Service in the United Kingdom, etc.).

In addition to the aforementioned causes, the literacy level in villages and rural areas are quite low. Many of the farmers and laborers from rural India are uneducated. As a result, many don’t know how medication can help them get better and how important it is to take medication every day to keep chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes in control. In urban areas, all income classes are more educated and are given awareness more frequently about healthcare when compared to individuals in rural areas. So, they tend to use medication and other healthcare facilities more frequently. Accessibility is not a huge issue in cities but this creates competition among providers and results in high costs which turns into a problem for low and average income communities of the urban population.

Usually, regular medications like anti-diabetics, anti-hypertensives, common antibiotics, analgesics, vitamins are available throughout the country except in some deeply located tribal areas. Medications which are used for some cancer chemotherapies, auto-immune diseases, and some orphan drugs are not widely available. People have to go to highly rated hospitals in developed metropolitan cities to get these medications, and I believe this scenario is the same anywhere in the world. This kind of accessibility shouldn’t affect any patient or healthcare provider unless there is any medical emergency. And thanks to the continuous efforts of the Government of India, India is improving the accessibility of medication. Recently, various health benefit schemes were implemented like free supply of in-patient medications in civil hospitals and sale of reasonably priced generic medications in rural and urban communities.

It is a well-established fact that India is a potential supplier of medications to many countries in the world. India is a manufacturing and research hub for many reputed pharmaceutical companies. However, this often leads to pharmaceutical companies who are exporting their products in large quantities rather than supplying them domestically. These medications range from certain medications for chronic diseases like diabetes drugs to life saving medical devices like the Epi-Pen. These pharmaceutical companies more interested in profit are preventing the Indian population from getting the best medications.

With the lack of proper medications, healthcare professionals cannot take the proper steps in patient care that they could actually do if they had adequate access to medications. So, it is vital to educate people of India, especially the rural population, while simultaneously framing and implementing some regulations and limits on the export of medications by pharmaceutical companies in order to improve healthcare in India.