Using Data and Research to Improve Hungarian Healthcare

Analysis

Cyril Schiever

Talk to anyone involved in pharmaceuticals, and they will tell you that Hungary’s highly centralized healthcare system is sitting on a unique data goldmine that very few other countries possess. Learn how best to unlock that, and the results in terms of better patient health outcomes could be transformative.

Cyril Schiever, president of the Mid-Europe Region for MSD, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, was in Budapest in late April on a trip to meet staff, partners and policymakers. He is as keen as anyone to unlock the potential of that data and see the relationship with Hungary continue to blossom.

“The key for us, and the conversation we’re having, is that we’re committed to Hungary,” Schiever tells the Budapest Business Journal in an exclusive interview. “We feel we’ve had an impact on patient health and public health in general over the last years; we’ve got strategic collaborations with several institutes; we do – and intend to continue doing – a lot of research.”

According to Schriever, MSD has “the largest clinical trial footprint of any company in Hungary. We’re running close to 100 clinical studies with more than 1,100 patients [.…]. Those trials represent the possibility of working with Hungarian investigators and scientific leaders to generate data critical to our research programs and for medicines and vaccines to make it, hopefully, towards registration.”

All of this underscores the importance of Hungary to MSD. “There are countries around Eastern Europe where we may have more employees, but when it comes to clinical research, Hungary has a very special place.”

In other words, MSD (which develops and produces human medicines, vaccines, biological therapies and, unusually, also animal health products) both draws from and contributes to that data bank. And because it has a vested interest, it isn’t afraid to make the occasional suggestion.

“Hungary was in the lead, in many aspects, in Eastern Europe for years. We see that today is a pivotal time. Do you truly want to remain in the lead? And do you give yourself the means to be in the lead?” Schiever challenges.

Be Bold

“[In] the last 24 months, we’ve seen several countries be more ambitious. We believe Hungary has everything to [….] be as bold in healthcare as it is in a few other sectors. And that is what we’re passionately advocating for. Because the foundation is there to make it,” he insists.

Schiever describes himself as an optimist, but it is also clear he is a realist who understands that any spending decision a government (any government) makes is a trade-off against all the other choices it has to make. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth asking the question.

“Yes, there are some constraints, some financial. I know these are hard choices, but I believe they’re valuable choices,” Schiever insists. Nor is he interested in simply going on the attack. He believes the authorities recognize that “not everything is optimal” and that “within the boundaries that they have,” they are trying their best.

“I want to commend them for what they have done, for example, over the course of the last 18 months as a result of some of the learnings from the pandemic, to have taken measures to improve [the] remuneration of healthcare professionals [….]. That was a very important move from the authorities.”

Particular strengths of Hungarian healthcare (“the result of very determined policy decisions over the years”) include prevention through screening and vaccination. Examples include its childhood vaccination programs, based on a high level of adherence, public confidence, infrastructure, and the quality of the vaccines used.

“We, as a company, want to be sure that we [….] provide the highest support in those programs. Why? Because our company is extremely engaged both on the vaccines front, but also in a number of important disease areas, whether cardiovascular, oncology or others.”

Another area of success has been screening for breast, cervical and colorectal cancers “that compares very well to most European countries,” Schiever notes. For the past seven years, lung cancer, which has a high incidence and poor prognostics, has been a particular focus.

Significant Change

“Through the work done, including the early introduction and adoption of a new class of medicine that we call immunotherapy, they’ve doubled the survival [rate]. It was just a little bit over one in 10 patients would survive after three years with an advanced lung cancer [diagnosis]. Today, it’s more than three out of 10. [….] That is very significant.”

There are, Schiever says, any number of countries trying to build a data infrastructure like Hungary. Given the foundation it already has, the focus here is on “the ability to leverage even further such data.” Why? “Because the future is all about choices. The innovation available today, the innovation that is coming, is very exciting, honestly, and could profoundly impact healthcare and Hungary,” Schiever says.

“What is very positive is that there is a higher awareness among the policymakers [here] that the life expectancy is not where they would like it to be, that there are several challenges, including in the younger age population, and that they want to see progress there,” the MSD leader outlines.

Like many countries, Hungary struggles to finance its healthcare needs. Therefore, what’s critical for governments is their ability to make decisions in two aspects. One is being more efficient. Because, however good, all systems have inefficiencies and waste. The second aspect is that decisions are data-, not price-driven. Often, if the data is lacking, healthcare authorities take the cheapest option.

“The challenge with that approach is that you may not use the right technology, the optimal medicines, vaccines or other interventions because healthcare is usually complex,” Schiever cautions.

“I can – and we do this a lot – advocate for increasing financing behind healthcare. And, honestly, they should. Hungary has one of the lowest budgets, as a percentage of GDP, going into healthcare. But I must also acknowledge the challenges and that this will take maybe 10 years,” he accepts.

“But over the course of those 10 years, we can do so much by ensuring that every intervention has the highest outcome. And that’s what a company like ours stands for because we’re all about research and data. And we’re all about working with the healthcare ecosystem to help produce real-world data. And if we do those two things well, we believe we can add value and help Hungary achieve its goals.”

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of May 6, 2024.

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