Barcelona — A paradigm shift is worrying the pharmaceutical industry and putting companies operating in Latin America to the test: both the disease burden and the demand for treatment are shifting, and the structure of healthcare systems is not yet able to cope with this shift.
This transformational environment highlights the need for countries in the region to adapt, according to Rolf Hoenger, Roche Pharma’s head of Latin America, in an interview with Bloomberg Línea.
In 2022, Roche accounted for 6% of the global pharmaceutical market, with an estimated value of $1.48 billion, according to Statista estimates, behind only Pfizer, which has a 9% share.
For Hoenger, Latin America is at a turning point where the adaptation of healthcare systems to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) is not only a medical necessity but also a strategic opportunity to boost the region’s development and economic growth.
A deep relationship with Latin America
As a Roche Pharma executive, Hoenger has been living in Brazil for 10 years and has spent another 23 years living in countries such as Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and other countries in Central America. He also created Roche’s division in Asia. Since arriving in Latin America, he has seen how NCDs such as cardiovascular conditions, cancer and mental health disorders are reshaping the contours of healthcare in the region.
NCDs represent a bigger challenge than industry and governments were used to, he says.
“They require a long-term management perspective and infrastructure that is currently underdeveloped in many Latin American countries.”
He highlighted the urgency for healthcare systems to adapt in order to manage these chronic conditions, which require a sustained, long-term approach to care that is very different from that required for the infectious diseases that have traditionally dominated the disease burden in the region.
However, to address this situation, it is not enough to invest in new drugs, he says. “It’s not just a question of drugs, but of how healthcare systems integrate prevention, early detection and ongoing treatment of these conditions”.
For Hoenger, investment in innovation is essential to improve the efficiency and sustainability of healthcare systems. “Governments must be convinced that health is not an expense, but an investment with a tangible economic and social return.” He said, citing a McKinsey report, that every dollar invested in health can double its return in the economy, generating a positive economic impact that transcends the immediate health benefits.
In this sense, he highlighted the importance of inclusive public policies that guarantee equity in access to healthcare and gives an example of the “double-entry” losses of an ineffective public health policy.
“Imagine a child with severe hemophilia. They will probably not be able to go to school because of the lack of infrastructure of the educational institution to deal with an emergency. And if they are at home, especially in realities like those in Latin America, their mother will not be able to work because she will have to take care of the child. So we are faced with two problems, a child who is not educated, and a mother who leaves the labor market”.
A holistic vision of healthcare, where prevention, early detection and treatment, together with effective public policies and the participation of private actors, can create a more resilient healthcare ecosystem that is prepared to face noncommunicable diseases is necessary, according to Hoenger.
The approach is not only medical, but also technological and organizational, he says.
The implementation of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) for early disease detection, and collaboration between various sectors can offer innovative solutions that improve both the quality and accessibility of care.
“We are talking about a qualitative leap in care through AI, telemedicine and the digitization of health data,” he says.
In a context where 1.67 million cases of breast cancer are diagnosed annually worldwide, the application of advanced genetic sequencing techniques and data analysis, backed by AI, “has enabled Roche to identify unique genetic markers and anticipate treatment responses,” he says.
Along these lines, Hoenger explains, Roche has integrated solutions such as Flatiron Health, a leader in oncology data, and Foundation Medicine, which specializes in comprehensive genomic tumor profiling, to identify targeted therapies, immunotherapies and clinical trials tailored to each patient.
In addition to the use of technology, the group also sees investment strategies and acquisitions of innovative companies as key. One example is the recent agreement to acquire Telavant, underlining its focus on experimental drug development. Roche has initially earmarked US$7.1 billion in this transaction with Roivant Sciences and Pfizer, consolidating its position in the field of inflammatory bowel disease, a condition that affects around 8 million people worldwide.
In addition to the use of technology, the company also sees investment strategies and acquisitions of innovative companies as key.
One example is the recent agreement to acquire Telavant, underlining its focus on experimental drug development. Roche has initially earmarked $7.1 billion in this transaction with Roivant Sciences and Pfizer, consolidating its position in the field of inflammatory bowel disease, a condition that affects around 8 million people worldwide.
The march of big tech in the healthcare sector
Large technology companies such as Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft are becoming increasingly involved in healthcare, launching innovative services that were once the domain of pharmaceutical companies. Laboratories, for their part, are shifting their business models towards innovative services, with some companies even moving away from being drug manufacturers to become technology and data providers.
Asked about this ever-increasing advance of big tech in the healthcare sector, Hoenger said he believes that the incursion of these companies into the healthcare sector can be both a challenge and an opportunity.
The key, he says, is to “collaborate” with these new market forces. “There is scope for everyone. For some, the core is to develop new medicines, while for others it’s to work the data and diagnose. When there is a kind of ‘consortium’ to work on solving problems, that’s ideal,” he says.
And he doesn’t rule out that, in the midst of collaborations, there may be some buyout moves.
-- Translated from the Spanish by Adam Critchley