5 Questions with Hong Hong: Improving Access to Diagnostic Testing for Underserved Communities

March 30, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted access challenges in the U.S. health care system, with millions of patients across the country experiencing barriers – geographic or otherwise – to testing resources. At Roche Diagnostics, we are committed to doing our part to ensure that testing resources – which are fundamental to combating the virus – are available where they are needed most. 

As part of our ongoing blog series which takes you behind the scenes with individuals on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, we sat down with Hong Hong, VP of Access and Government Affairs. She shares what it takes to enable sustainable access to diagnostic testing solutions for patients, including the need to collaborate with local and federal stakeholders across the COVID-19 response, as well as the importance of remaining flexible and nimble during the pandemic and beyond.

 

Q:  What initial steps did Roche take to help communities experiencing barriers to COVID-19 testing during the pandemic?

 

While the start of the pandemic was an uncertain time, everyone – from local government officials to health systems to other community leaders – was committed to working together to increase access to testing, and we were proud to have a seat at the table in those efforts. 

At Roche we recognized early on that access to COVID-19 testing in our country was fractured and inconsistent, with some communities having ready access to high-volume, high-throughput labs, while others had minimal-to-no access to technology that allows for fast, large-scale testing. For communities with access to high-volume labs – typically as part of large, regional healthcare systems – we looked at ways to increase their reach by ramping up their ability to quickly process more tests for their current service area, and by connecting them with neighboring communities to share resources.

Additionally, to supplement this approach, we worked with communities to identify other technologies – such as the cobas® Liat® PCR System – that could be used to process COVID-19 PCR tests in community-based settings, like emergency rooms and doctor’s offices, to create more opportunities for community members to access needed testing.

We also established a consistent, global pricing structure and flexible contracting for our customers to help with resource planning and ensure cost was not a barrier to access, regardless of care setting or geography.

 

Q: How is Roche continuing to work with state and local health authorities to improve access to testing and diagnostics beyond COVID-19?

 

Access to diagnostic testing plays a critical role in ensuring the health and well-being of communities, whether we’re thinking of emerging issues like COVID-19, or established community health risks like flu, cardiovascular conditions or cancer. While working with communities to create connections to available technology and identify opportunities for supplemental testing solutions for COVID-19 helped to address emergent access challenges in the short-term, the broader issue of access to testing remain, requiring long-term attention and solutions.

To that end, we have been advocating alongside other industry partners and stakeholders for the federal government to expand funding to help communities build out their testing infrastructure to better meet the needs of patients, be that during a future pandemic or for ongoing needs around chronic conditions. By encouraging the federal government to review policies aimed at broadening access while minimizing cost to patients, we hope that long-term barriers to diagnostic testing can be reduced.

 

Q: How did innovation in diagnostics help improve access during COVID-19?

 

Innovating to meet the needs of patients quickly and efficiently is at the core of everything we do. During COVID-19, having multiple testing options to best address both evolving clinical and patient needs was a critical piece in the access puzzle. We quickly addressed the initial diagnostic need for COVID-19 by getting the first commercially-available molecular diagnostic test for COVID-19 to market. From there, we poured a significant amount of R&D resources into rapidly meeting other testing needs for COVID-19, such as antigen and antibody tests, without sacrificing scientific rigor. Having a full suite of innovative solutions available at a variety of care settings has enabled us to optimize our ability to reach the patients and communities where resources are most needed.

 

Q: How has the COVID-19 response impacted ongoing innovation in the diagnostics industry?

 

From COVID-19, we’ve learned many valuable lessons that we can carry forward. For instance,  the speed of innovation has been astounding and has pushed us to think about how we can continue to deliver reliable, high-quality testing options for patients more efficiently in other disease areas. One example of this is Roche’s cobas® SARS-CoV-2 & Influenza A/B Assay. This combined COVID-19 and flu diagnostic can help clinicians provide a quick and accurate diagnosis for two conditions that can present with similar symptoms and, if left undiagnosed, could result in health complications or community spread.

 

Q: What are some of the top challenges the diagnostic industry continues to face from an access perspective?

 

Reliable, high-quality testing is essential for a patient-centric healthcare system; however, reimbursement challenges can create barriers that impact how and when they’re used. As testing becomes more sophisticated and complex, it’s the role of the diagnostics industry to help payers understand the value that diagnostic testing brings not only to the patient, but to the economics of the healthcare system, such as reduced delays in care and more personalized treatment plans.

The industry also faces challenges when it comes to the approval of innovative solutions. For example, approvals for diagnostics still heavily rely upon clinical evidence, but the question is: could you get solutions faster to patients if you consider a totality of evidence that includes clinical and real-world data? That’s a question that we need to continue to explore as an industry as we think about how best to get needed diagnostics in the hands of clinicians to improve patient care.