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The Future of Medical Research

Asia setting the research agenda, Apple competing with Google to provide health care, the end of phase III clinical trials, and the use of real world patient data collected from mobile technology…. Thinking about the future can throw up some interesting ideas!

I am an Assistant Director for Research and Strategy at Breast Cancer Now and a 2014 Clore Social Fellow. As part of my Fellowship I set out to explore the future of UK medical research. Despite the fact it can take decades to create new therapies I rarely see us spending time thinking about what the world will be like when those therapies will be ready for clinical use.

As strategic investors in medical research we need ways to think about the future so that we can spot opportunities and head off threats. There is a way we can take advantage of the future rather than be caught out by it. We can do this by generating Foresight. Take a look at  “The Future of Medical Research” report which provides a guide on how to run a Foresight process and explores the insights generated along the way. 

What is ‘Foresight’?

Foresight is a tool, a process for helping us think about what the future may have in store for us, our organisations and the people we want to save from illness.

If our planning looks at the next two or three years and our strategies consider the next five to 10 years, Foresight looks further ahead, to 10, 20 or even 30 years’ time.

As part of my Clore Fellowship programme, I ran a simplified Foresight project to dip my toe into the future of UK medical research, looking ahead to 2035.

What did I find?

The work generated a lot of insight into strategic and financial issues, from the role of Asia in setting global priorities to the role mobile technology companies in delivering health care.

Examples of the insight generated

  • The quality of scientific output from Asia has increased over the years and is set to continue to do so, and the influence of Asia on global research is starting to increase. This may lead to the East dominating global research priorities in the future.
  • Within the UK, there have been some shifts to local, rather than national, agenda setting, with power being devolved to local organisations, such as Clinical Commissioning Groups, and local authorities being given a mandate for public health. This may affect how research priorities are set in the future.
  • There are new disease challenges facing us, such as drug resistance, and the increasing threat that infectious diseases may take priority over diseases of old age, despite our aging population. Climate change may also bring with it new and unexpected health challenges.
  • An interesting shift is occurring in which mobile technology companies are increasingly interested in helping individuals collect health data about themselves. These companies are in a position to collate and analyse this data on a large scale. However, this data collection is not research focused; bias will emerge in the data if only a self-selected and resourceful group of people engage with the data collection.

How might you use the insights or run a Foresight process?

The insights are primarily discussion starters. The questions posed below might help open up discussions.

  • Are any of the insights particularly interesting to you and your organisation and why?
  • Do you particularly agree or disagree with any of the insights and why?
  • Do the insights shed light on a more operational issue that you are dealing with?
  • Does your current strategy take into account the issues highlighted? Does it need to?
  • What do you think might happen, as relevant to medical research, when the outcomes of different insights interact?

The scenarios and the insight you generate along the way can be used in different ways. For example:

  • Strategy and new areas of innovation. You could stress test your current strategy: would it cope with the scenarios you have created? New ideas might emerge as you go through the process.
  • Culture, spotting opportunities and threats. Shifting your focus to the future could, I suspect, create a culture of responding to change, and possible future change, simply because you can spot new opportunities and challenges.
  • Thought leadership. Or perhaps, like me, you simply find exploring the future interesting and want to share your experience and thoughts!

This guide will help you consider these ideas, with the help of examples of the insights I generated doted along the way.

My experience and conclusions

I was interested to see whether a Foresight process would generate useful insights for medical research organisations.

To my mind the answer is yes, the insights generated through the process are interesting and, I hope, will be of use to others and myself. Some of them are not new to me (personalised medicine anyone?), but some of them are. The idea that phase III trials might not be needed if we can collect, and regulators would accept, real-world data from patients is an example of something I had not considered before. Further, while I knew the NHS is changing, I had not really considered the fact that should the Five Year Forward View be successful, there will be fewer district general hospitals from which to run large clinical trials.

On a more practical note, in my organisation, Breast Cancer Now, a newly merged charity, we are starting the process of developing our future strategy. The insights will prompt me to encourage Breast Cancer Now to consider several issues that we might not have otherwise spotted.

While we may know what we want for the future, the world might have other ideas. I can see a role for Foresight in helping us ensure that we get the best for our beneficiaries, rather than being caught out by a very uncertain world!

Get in touch!

Please contact me if you would like to discuss anything in the guide or the insights themselves. I would love to hear what you think of the process and whether you feel it might be useful for medical research organisations.

I’d also be fascinated to hear if you particularly agree or disagree with any of the insights, or if they have prompted you to think about your work differently!

Stuart Griffiths

2014 Clore Social Fellow

Assistant Director – Research and Strategy, Breast Cancer Now