When the pandemic arrived, routine decisions on the status for Scotland of newly licensed medicines were paused. Daniel Cairns of Myeloma UK, Scottish Cancer Coalition’s representative on the SMC Public Involvement Network (PIN) Advisory Group, explains how moving one of Healthcare Improvement Scotland’s biggest and most complex meetings into a virtual space, allowing vital decisions to be made, has been welcomed by patients.

Access to new medicines is a vital part of a cancer patient’s journey. As a patient advocate, I represent patient views, insight and experience on new medicines, and help to feed that insight into the work of the Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) as they look to make recommendations for newly licensed medicines, including those for cancer patients.

Cancer medicines are a large part of the work for the SMC. When the pandemic arrived, it was understandable that parts of the SMC process had to pause as Healthcare Improvement Scotland helped to tackle the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Whilst we were all disappointed for patients, we were not surprised that the work of SMC was paused, since a large part of both the committee membership and SMC staff is made up of healthcare professionals who were needed elsewhere to help with the pandemic.

With continued uncertainty as to when face-to-face meetings will be able to begin again, I was heartened to hear that SMC had found a way to restart its confidential meetings by moving them online.

The benefits of moving SMC online

It feels like every organisation in the country has been given a crash course in online working. With that in mind, a virtual meeting format was almost expected to be rolled out for SMC, and the Scottish Cancer Coalition is very happy that this has happened. The work of SMC is vital in enabling patients in Scotland to access potentially lifesaving new treatments and extending access to existing treatments.

We are pleased that the work of the SMC has now fully resumed and are keen to work in constructive ways to help develop new ways of working which minimise any delays in access to new medicines due to the pandemic. I have been involved in informing some of this work through my participation in the SMC PIN Advisory Group.

Running smoothly

Between its pause and restart we were kept informed on the situation by both the SMC Public Involvement Team and the Scottish Government.

I recently took part in one of the first virtual Patient and Clinician Engagement (PACE) meetings, followed by the second ever virtual SMC Committee meeting in September. There was plenty of preparation given before each meeting. When we were notified of the PACE and SMC committee meetings, there was a helpful briefing detailing what to expect from the virtual meeting, together with some virtual meeting etiquette.

Alongside this, the Public Involvement Team were always on hand and happy to meet virtually to discuss any questions that I had. This was useful for me preparing for my first meeting.

Both the meetings I attended ran smoothly. There were no significant technical issues. The chair of the committee meeting was in good control over the virtual platform, allowing ample opportunity for patient organisations to contribute to the discussions around the appraisal.

The meetings were relaxed and easy to follow, with clear instructions from the SMC team. All of the attendees were courteous and we were given plenty of breaks to refresh our coffees and continue with each section of the meeting.  

Could virtual meetings be the future?

I think virtual meetings certainly have a place in the future of the SMC. This kind of meeting is good for Patient Organisations who are based more remotely. It is also especially significant for PACE/SMC meetings when a patient organisation nominates a patient or carer to attend and speak about their own experience. Cancer patients have to take each day as it comes depending on how their illness or treatment is affecting them. It would be a huge advantage for patients to be able to contribute from the comfort of their own home instead of journeying in to attend a meeting in person.  

That being said, the pandemic has had an impact on the third sector with many patient organisations restructuring due to huge losses in fundraising. Unfortunately, this may impact on the ability of some patient organisations to participate in health technology assessments.

As new treatments are such a vital part of myeloma patients’ outcomes, we remain committed to working with the SMC and the Scottish Cancer Coalition to ensure that these new treatments are delivered to patients.   

Clearly, a great deal of hard work and dedication from the SMC team has gone into finding an innovative solution to the problems raised by the pandemic. The virtual meetings have so far been a success and it is brilliant for patients that the work of the SMC is continuing.

Daniel Cairns is Patient Advocacy & Policy Officer with Myeloma UK, a member of the Scottish Cancer Coalition and a member of SMC’s PIN Advisory Group which sits within Healthcare Improvement Scotland.

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