Setting A Cost Of Time That Patients May Gain From A New Therapy

Since quite some, an intense ongoing debate about setting a cost of time, often by a few months, that patients could possibly gain from a new therapy for complex diseases. The answer still remains elusive.  Meanwhile, newer therapies for treating cancer, such as, Kymriah, priced at US$ 475,000, alongside several rare diseases, hit the market with jaw-dropping prices. The latest being - Zolgensma of Novartis, carrying a price tag of US$ 2.12 million – the most expensive treatment ever. This trend assumes greater significance as Bio – claimed as the world’s largest trade association representing biotechnology companies, and related organizations, across the United States and in more than 30 other nations, also makes some interesting points in this area.

This article will dwell on the relevance of this important issue, both in today’s and also in the future perspective. It will try to explore, why pharma and biotech companies are not keen to use a ‘transparent multi-factorial life-value calculator’, especially for prolonging life or curing an incurable disease, with a high-priced novel therapy.

Emotional ads to justify the trend, against tough practical questions: 

A part of a sleek looking advertisement from Bio, depicting the power of new therapies to prolong life, carries a headline – ‘Time. The Currency of Life,” followed by three emotive lines and two equally emotive questions: “Another decade with a spouse. A few more years with your best friend. A rich, fuller life rather than one cut short. How do we place value on these?” It then asks: “What is more precious? What is more priceless?”

Turning this emotive question on its head to a rational one, an article published in the Stat News on February 25, 2016 questioned: “How much is an extra month of life worth?” It asked the drug makers to calculate the same. The same article also quoted a Yale University economist and practicing radiologist asking: “It’s all well and good to just say life is priceless, but the reality is we are paying for it.”

Emotive ads try to justify funding towards innovation for such drugs:

The same advertisement, as above, while trying to indirectly justify such exorbitant drug costs, used yet another emotive note in its playbook. It emphasized: “By continuing to fund the innovation pipeline that has served us so well, we will be able to reduce the costs associated with modern-day health care.”

Such claims are being scientifically challenged – head on, by many important studies. To illustrate this point, I shall quote the following two, both were published in the JAMA Network. The first one in the JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery and the next one in JAMA Oncology.

The first article is the ‘John Conley Lecture’, carrying a title, ‘Unintended Consequences of Expensive Cancer Therapeutics—The Pursuit of Marginal Indications and a Me-Too Mentality That Stifles Innovation and Creativity,’ appeared on December 2014. On innovative drugs of such genre, the paper concluded: “The use of expensive therapies with marginal benefits for their approved indications and for unproven indications is contributing to the rising cost of cancer care. We believe that expensive therapies are stifling progress, by:

  • Encouraging enormous expenditures of time, money, and resources on marginal therapeutic indications and
  • Promoting a me-too mentality that is stifling innovation and creativity.

The second article is an ‘original investigation, titled ‘Assessment of Overall Survival, Quality of Life, and Safety Benefits Associated with New Cancer Medicines.’ It also underscored: ‘Although innovation in the oncology drug market has contributed to improvements in therapy, the magnitude and dimension of clinical benefits vary widely, and there may be reasons to doubt that claims of efficacy reflect real-world effectiveness exactly.’

Here again, the emotional appeal is being made by creating a ‘perfect World’ scenario. Whereas, scientific analysis of the innovative and high-priced drugs, reveals the reality for other stakeholders to take note of. Different pharma trade associations, although being a part of the same orchestrated effort, try differently to take the eyes off the humongous prices of new life-saving drugs. But many continue to believe that new cancer drug prices have long gone beyond control.

90 percent Biopharma companies do not earn a profit – A bizarre claim?

As is well-known, besides justifying high drug prices by highlighting ‘high R&D cost,’ drug manufacturers often say, as the Bio ad campaign makes an eyebrow raising claim – “Of the approximately 1,200 Biopharma companies in the United States, more than 90 percent do not earn a profit.”

Citing the example of the US market where drug prices are very high, it justifies, the general focus on list prices of the drugs is misplaced. This is because, the ‘manufacturers provide billions of dollars in rebates and discounts on their innovative therapies annually, to federal, state and private payors, in addition to offering direct assistance through patient assistance programs.’ It further added, these discounts vary but can result into a significant total of as much as 50 percent or greater depending on the program.

Experts have challenged even this claim that the list prices do matter, even in the US, for many, including uninsured population and those with co-payment arrangement, which are not based on the discounted prices. Leaving aside America, what happens in those countries, such as India, where out-of-pocket expenses on health care are considered the highest in the world?

With new cancer drug prices going beyond control, the price of postponing death is growing:

That the new cancer drug prices have long gone beyond control, isn’t a new realization. A research paper, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology on May 06, 2013, also noted emphatically: ‘Allowing the producer-dominated market to set drug prices has spiraled the cost of cancer drugs out of control.’  So did another 2015 study, published in the Journal of Economic Perspective.

According to various studies, such as the one published in the JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, as quoted above, also found after studying over 70 of such new drugs that the median improvement in survival was around 2.1months. Some other reports indicated this number to be around 3.5 months on an average.

Interestingly, the 2015 study, published in the Journal of Economic Perspective found that ‘the price of postponing death is growing. In 2013, one extra year of life for cancer patients costs US$ 207,000, on average, nearly quadruple what it did in 1995.

Is it quality of life over the quantity of life, or vice versa?

The above findings may lead one to the critical question – what type of treatment choice would create the most desirable net impact on individual cancer patients? This evaluation should include all the three parameters – the extent of prolongation of the ‘Length of Life (LoL)’, the ‘Quality of Life (QoL)’ the patients experience during this period – and the additional drug cost that needs to be incurred.

It should ideally be up to patients whether they will choose quality over quantity of life or vice versa. To facilitate this process, an informed briefing by the doctor on the most likely scenario, vis-à-vis other available treatment alternatives, is expected to help individual cancer patient exercise the best affordable individual option.

This point was scientifically addressed in a research article - ‘Quality of life versus length of life considerations in cancer patients: A systematic literature review,’ published in the Journal of Psycho-Oncology on May 15, 2019. The study noted, ‘Patients with cancer face difficult decisions regarding treatment and also the possibility of trading the Quality of Life (QoL) for Length of Life (LoL).’ Little information is available on patients’ preferences in this regard, including ‘the personal costs they are prepared to exchange to extend their life.’

Another related question that also remains equally elusive, is the relationship between the cost of a medication and the amount of quality-time that it offers to patients. Quantifiable assessment of such nature could bring more transparency in drug pricing, especially for those that help treat life-threatening ailments, such as cancer.

Similar questions are raised on pricey therapy for rare diseases:

The cost of drugs for rare diseases is threatening the health care system – articulated an article, published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) on April 07, 2017. The paper stated, in December 2016, US-FDA announced the market approval of nusinersen (sold as “Spinraza”), an effective Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) treatment licensed to Biogen by Ionis Pharmaceuticals. SMA is considered the most common genetic cause of infant mortality.

As the author penned, “Patients and providers greeted the approval with near ecstasy, but the celebration was bittersweet. Five days after the FDA approved, the drug, Biogen announced each dose would cost US$ 125,000. Given that patients need six doses in the first year and three per year after that, it means the drug costs US$ 750,000 per patient in the first year and US$ 375,000 annually thereafter.”

A desperate father’s reaction for the price – and the economics behind it:

The HBR article captured the reaction of the father of an infant on this price, who is desperate to save the baby – in the following words – “Then there’s Will’s heartbreaking reaction, which I’m sure echoes the sentiments of many touched by SMA. – “The Biogen announcement of the cost of nusinersen floored me in every way possible,” he says. “Words cannot describe the sickening feeling I get when I think about it.” If this could be a father’s reaction in America, one can well imagine what happens in a similar situation to people in the developing world.

At that time, Zolgensma of Novartis, wearing a price tag of US$ 2.12 million for treatment of the same disease, was also shaping up for market launch. On this drug, the author of this HBR article who also happened to be a professor, vice chair of research, and chief of the Division of Neuromuscular Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine, wrote: “A very promising gene therapy for SMA is on the horizon, which would require only one dose and potentially render nusinersen obsolete. Did such mercenary economics influence Biogen’s pricing decision? We may never know; drug companies are not required to justify their prices.” On the contrary, as many believe, the concerned global CEOs, reportedly, get a hefty financial reward, for the same.


It is not difficult to understand either, that some drugs, especially for rare diseases, will be used for treating a smaller number of patients. Hence, the optimal economies of scale in manufacturing can’t be attained. At the same time, the cost of R&D of the therapy needs to be recouped along with a reasonable profit, for investment towards future drugs. This is in addition to market exclusivity the drug will enjoy through patent thicket.

Nevertheless, despite the existence of several methods of a human life value calculation, such as in the insurance industry the use of a transparent and drug industry specific, multi-factorial live-value calculator is still not in vogue. As the drug industry often highlights, the ‘value of human life is priceless’ – regardless of the costs of drugs. In this situation, many industry experts, academics and patient groups advocate that the ongoing uncontrolled pricing mechanism for such medicines should be brought under a leash. This could come in the form of a tough price negotiation’ before the drug marketing approval, as was promised by the Government, or putting in place a stringent price regulatory system.

Be that as it may, the bottom line is to understand and find an answer to: ‘Why Does Medicine Cost So Much?’ This issue was analyzed by the Time Magazine in its April 09, 2019 edition. Quoting Dr. Aaron Kesselheim, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, it emphasized: It all starts with the manufacturers. There are essentially no regulations governing how new drugs are priced – drug companies select a price what they “believe the market will bear.” Blockbuster first-in-class treatments, therefore, command a stratospheric price, like what happened with Gilead’s hepatitis medication – Sovaldi, way back in 2013. It was priced at US$ 1,000 a pill, or US $84,000 for the full course of treatment. From this perspective, although, setting a cost of time that patients may gain from a new therapy has a moral and ethical relevance – but actually, it doesn’t seem to be business-friendly in the drug industry.

By: Tapan J. Ray 

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

Access to Medicine: Losing Track in Cacophony

Indian Healthcare space is by and large an arena, where perceptions prevail over the changing reality in many important areas. Consequently, fierce discourse in those areas mostly gives rise to a cacophony of ‘Your Perceptions Against Mine’.

It is intriguing, why even in some well-hyped research studies of recent times, multiple interpretations are made not based on specific analytics-based numbers, but around critical data gaps and then the vital ‘conclusion’ is craftily packaged in a particular way to reinforce a set of perceptions and view points.

Serious discourse on ‘Access to Medicine’ in India often falls in these data crevasses, resulting nothing more than abject cynicism and expert sermons sans accountability from all quarters. Suggestions for precise quantification of magnitude of the problem, so far as ‘Access to Medicine’ is concerned, and then measuring the same periodically for sustainable corrective measures, obviously fade away in the din of multiple shrill voices, heavily loaded with self-perceptions attempting to score favorable brownie points.

A quantifiable number on overall ‘access to medicines’ remains illusive:

A quantifiable recent number on overall ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ in India, which could well form the base to measure progress of the country in this critical area subsequently, still remains illusive.

It is an irony, no one seems to know today what is the current ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ in India, in real term.

A recent study too goes around it, but NOT into it:

A 2012 industry sponsored study carried out by IMS Consulting, instead of giving just one number for overall ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ in India, went around it by reiterating the obvious that ‘access’ has 4 dimensions such as, Physical Reach, Availability/Capacity, Quality/Functionality and Affordability.

That is fine. No issue. However, the much sought after number of overall ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ still remained illusory in this study too. Interestingly, there are no numbers available to public for each of the above 4 important dimensions either. Thus the cacophony got shriller.

Clutching on to ‘Dinosaurian data’ in modern times:

Against the above backdrop, like many others, both local and global, even the honorable President of India on January 16, 2013, while addressing the ASSOCHAM 10th Knowledge Millennium Summit, quoted the ‘World Medicines Situation of 2004 report’, the base year of which is reportedly 1999. This study indicated, ‘only 35% of the population of India, against 53% in Africa and 85% in China has access to modern medicines’.

Thus in the absence of any recently updated number, the ‘Dinosaurian data’ of 1999 (published in 2004) is being considered relevant by many even in 2013, including the esteemed industry body that probably provided those irrelevant data to the president of India’s office for his speech, at the beginning of this year.

Importance of capturing today’s ‘Access’ data to provide ‘Healthcare to all’:

There should not be even an iota of doubt that the above reported scenario has changed quite significantly, at least, during the last decade in India, making the 1999 (published in 2004) ‘Access to Medicines’ numbers irrelevant, having no sense whatsoever in 2013.

To drive home this point, I shall now focus on just three sets of parameters, besides many others, to vindicate my comment on ‘dinosaurian data’. These parameters are as follows:

  1. Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) in per-capita expenditure on healthcare from 2006-11
  2. Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of the domestic pharmaceutical industry in this period
  3. Quantum of increase in use of public healthcare facilities

1. Per capita Healthcare expenditure from 2006-11:

Year US $
1999 18.2
2004 28.7
2006 33.0
2007 39.9
2008 42.7
2009 43.6
2010 51.4
2011 59.1

(Source WHO Data)

The above table vey clearly highlights that in 1999, the base year of the above study, per capita healthcare expenditure in India was just US$ 18.2. The figure rose to US$ 28.7 in year 2004, when that study was published. The number reached to US $ 59.1 in 2011. This reflects a double digit Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) in per capita healthcare expenditure of the country from the 2004 study to 2011.

No doubt, this number is still much less than many other countries. Nevertheless, in 2013, per capita healthcare expenditure in India will be even more, indicating significant increase in ‘Access’ as compared to 2004.

2. Growth of domestic pharmaceutical market

According to the PwC – CII report titled “India Pharma Inc.: Gearing up for the next level of growth”, the domestic drug market has been clocking a CAGR of more than 15 percent over the last five years. Thus, high growth of the Indian Pharmaceutical Market (IPM) since the last decade, both from the urban and the rural areas, would certainly signal towards significant increase in the domestic consumption of medicines. Moreover, fast growing rural and semi-urban markets would also clearly support the argument in favor of increasing ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ in India.

A back of the envelope calculation:

Improvement in access as compared to what ‘World Medicines Situation of 2004 report’ had highlighted, may not have a linear relationship to the volume growth of the industry during this period. However, a large part of this growth could indeed be attributed to increase in overall consumption of drugs, leading to improvement in access to medicines in India.

For example, out of the reported 15 percent CAGR of the IPM, if one attributes just 8 percent volume growth/year to increased access to drugs, a back of the envelope calculation would indicate that during last nine years over the base year of 2004, the access to medicines has improved at least to 70 percent of the population, if not more, and has NOT remained just at 35 percent, as many tend to establish a point or two by quoting the above dated report.

Unfortunately, even the Government of India does not seem to be aware of this gradually improving trend, as evidenced in the honorable President of India’s speech in 2013, as quoted above. Official communications of the government also keep quoting the outdated statistics stating that 65 percent of the population of India does not have ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ even today.

Be that as it may, around 30 percent of Indian population would still perhaps not have ‘Access to Medicines’ in India. This issue needs immediate attention of the policy makers and can possibly be achieved through effective implementation of a holistic public health policy model like, ‘Universal Health Care (UHC)’.

3. Increase in use of public healthcare facilities:

According to a study done by the IMS Consulting Group in 2012, in rural India, which constitutes around 70 percent of the total 1.2 billion populations of India, usage of Government facilities for Out Patient (OP) care has increased from 22 percent in 2004 to 29 percent in 2012, mainly due to the impact of National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). This increase will have significant impact in reducing ‘Out of pocket (OoP)’ healthcare expenses of the rural poor.

Overall impact on some key health indicators: 

The same 2012 study of IMS Consulting highlights that an objective and comprehensive assessment of healthcare access in India was last undertaken in 2004, through a survey performed by the National Survey Sample Organization (NSSO). 
The survey reported on multiple parameters related to healthcare, including morbidity in broad age groups, immunization status, episodes of outpatient/ inpatient treatment across geography/ income segments together with expenditure on treatment. These measures, the study indicates, were taken collectively to indicate the status of healthcare access.

According to this report, the Government of India had undertaken multiple programs to improve healthcare access. These programs have addressed numerous issues, in varying proportion, that are linked to healthcare access, including lack of infrastructure, high cost of treatment, and the quality and availability of treatment. Some of these programs have been enormously successful: for example, India is a polio-free country today, the study reinforces.

The study also highlights significant progress in some basic healthcare indicators. The examples cited are as follows:

  • Maternal mortality rate has decreased by ~50 percent, and was reported at 200 deaths per 100,000 live births in the year 2010 as compared to 390 a decade ago. A few states such as Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Kerala have already achieved the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of a maternal mortality ratio less than 109 maternal death per 100,000 live births, with multiple other states close to achieving this target.
  • Infant mortality rate has decreased by greater than 25 percent over the period 2000–2009, and was reported at 50 deaths per 1,000 live births. Correspondingly, the under-5 child mortality rate (U5MR) has decreased by similar percentage levels, and was reported at 64 deaths per 1,000 live births. While U5MR for urban India has achieved the MDG target of 42 the same for rural of 71 is significantly lagging the target level.
  • Immunization coverage has increased significantly, for example diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis immunization among 1 year olds has increased from 60% to 70%, and the Hepatitis B coverage has increased from 68% in 2005 to 91% in 2010.
  • National programs have successfully improved detection and cure rates for tuberculosis and leprosy.

No direct relationship established between healthcare spend and outcomes:

Though India’s per-capita healthcare spend has been lowest among the usually compared BRIC countries, the following quick example would clearly establish that the healthcare outcomes do not have a linear relationship with the per-capita healthcare spend either:

Per capita Healthcare expenditure in 2011: Country Comparison

Country US $ World Rank Physician/1000 people Hospital/1000 people Life expectancy at birth (years)
Brazil 1120.56   41 1.76 2.3 73.4
Russia 806.7   55 4.31 9.6 69.0
India 59.1 152 0.65 0.9 67.08
China 278.02   99 1.82 3.8 73.5 

(Source: WHO data)

Thus, taking a cue from these numbers, India should decide at what percapita spend the country would possibly be able to ensure quality ‘access’ to healthcare for 100 percent of its population. Mere, comparison of percapita spend of each country, I reckon, may thus not mean much.


The moot point, I reckon, is that, to measure progress in any sphere of activity, one will need to have a robust well-derived base point. Thereafter, progress needs to be monitored and quantified periodically from one point to the next.

So far as the access to healthcare in general and medicines in particular are concerned, it becomes difficult to fathom why is this basic approach still not being considered to measure progress in ‘Access’ and its rate in India.

As a result, discussions among the stakeholders do not take place around those updated numbers, either. Instead, what we hear is a high decibel cacophony of perceptions, at times groping around various dimensions of ‘Access’ and that too without quantification of each, as stated above.  This makes the task all the more complicated in pursuit of providing ‘Healthcare to All’ in India.

That said, the question to ponder now:

Does any one know what is the current ‘Access to Modern Medicines’ number in India and at what rate the progress is being made in that direction to achieve ‘Health for All’ objective of the country?

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.