Redefining Care through Patient Partnership

AstraZeneca’s Niko Andre discusses the power of patient partnership in driving medical progress.

Cancer medicine has been my calling since I started my clinical tenure as an intern. Practicing over the years in clinical cancer care as medical oncologist and hematologist, I worked very closely with patients and their families to enable optimal, individual and holistic care strategies. And I firmly believe that when we want to drive meaningful advancements for people living with cancer, a profound understanding of the constantly evolving care landscape is as critically important as is scientific excellence. So, when the opportunity to join AstraZeneca Oncology emerged, what first captured my attention was the strong scientific heritage and strength of the organization, paired with a bold ambition to not only develop innovative cancer medicines but to actually redefine care in oncology and hematology. I am happy to say that my initial observations about AstraZeneca’s commitment to follow the science to drive medical innovation were accurate, but since joining the company in 2020 — and what keeps me here — is the genuine patient-first mindset which guides our work and fuels our urgency to improve lives.

Cancer represents an extremely complex and diverse family of diseases, and as such, cancer patient experiences are equally diverse. Our role in developing medicines demands that we thoroughly understand the uniqueness of each patient experience. In fact, the only way to build truly meaningful, sustainable solutions is to listen to, understand and integrate the patient perspective at every step. Patients are not transactional recipients of our products and services. They are informed, empowered, and far too often urgently awaiting new and improved treatment options. It’s our responsibility to walk in their shoes, to feel their struggle, and to embrace them as true partners in their care.

This can be easier said than done. Our work in the pharmaceutical industry is technical and complicated, and when we’re focused on our day-to-day activities of developing and delivering medicine, we can become distracted from the very real, individualized patient need for better medicine. The urgency of our work is most palpable when we take the time to reflect on the daily lives and struggles of people and families living with cancer.

Understanding the immense value of patients as active partners was not a given for me. It only came through time and experience, teaching me that what I often thought was the right treatment path from my medical expert perspective was not making much sense for some patients. It was a humbling process, yet essential to developing a full appreciation of the importance of focusing on the individual patient in the most empathetic and caring way possible.

Interestingly, much of this appreciation was developed during work with patients in clinical trials. Years ago, I cared for a patient with advanced colorectal cancer. Gunther was in his mid fifties, father of three, IT manager, highly engaged in dealing with his cancer. We enrolled him in a trial exploring an experimental new medicine, and he experienced a terrific response. But when his cancer returned, and we offered him the chance to participate in a second study, he refused. The possibility of side effects that could debilitate his sensory manual skills was too big a sacrifice, even when facing a deadly disease. It was hard for me to accept his decision, yet it helped me truly value individual perspectives and to place much more emphasis on individual quality of life rather than on the efficacy of treatments.

In our industry, it is critical to remind ourselves of people like Gunther again, and again. This has become core to our approach at AstraZeneca. In all we do, we continuously ask ourselves, “Are we providing value for patients?” We invest our full energy to reference patient insights at key decision points throughout the development process, from how we formulate our therapies to how we design our trials, and throughout the therapy life cycle. Our early collaboration with patient advocacy groups also allows us to develop meaningful support programs and design clinical studies with outcomes that are significant to patients. Take, for example, our work with the CLL Advocates Network which aims to build consensus around the unmet needs in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) to enable health system improvements for patients with this most common form of leukemia. We’re also using patient insights in real time to adapt to a changing healthcare delivery infrastructure, exploring things like remote patient care services and closer alignment of diagnostics and treatment.

Importantly, we also believe in sharing what we’ve learned. Across the AZ Oncology organization, we share insights and learnings about what it means to live with cancer through our internal programs, and external collaborations. The stories shared are often emotional, and always deeply personal. They not only help keep the urgent and critical unmet need for new solutions top of mind, but also, they remind us of the amazing strength of people living with cancers. One of the most powerful and motivating things for me is to listen to the stories of young patients who give solace to their parents, or those who, even in the face of death, demonstrate wonderfully creative and powerful displays of strength.

Patients are driving a paradigm shift in our approach to healthcare, and together, we’ve made incredible progress in cancer medicine over the past 10 years. Moving forward, I trust we’ll continue to see an evolution in partnership based on mutual trust and transparent understanding of individual patient needs, as well as an increased recognition that we cannot outsmart cancer alone. It’s only by working together — by recognizing the power of patient partnership — that we’ll redefine care in oncology.

Niko Andre, M.D., is Global Franchise Head, Hematology and Immuno-Oncology at AstraZeneca.