Role of health policy and health economics in cancer research

Interview with Andrea Szűcs, research fellow of ELTE and MSD joint research program

Role of health policy and health economics in cancer research HU
Andrea Szűcs holds a bachelor degree in sociology, a master degree in Health Policy, Planning and Financing, and now has been in a research fellow position in the joint research program of ELTE - Department of Health Policy and Health Economics - and MSD Pharma Hungary since September 2016.

What research area is covered during the program, and what is your role in the whole process?
The main goal of the joint research program organized by ELTE and MSD is to develop my skills in the field of health economics, outcomes and research (HEOR), which is fulfilled by accomplishing an own research in a given topic.

This research focuses on the area of head and neck cancers within immuno-oncology. Nowadays cancer research has a great potential, and immune-oncology is a new alternative in the fight against malignant cancer diseases. Clinical trials made by pharmaceutical companies resulted in a breakthrough in the treatment of different types of cancers, such as melanoma or lung cancer.  Applying immuno-oncology products can be a new treatment option also for patients suffering from head and neck cancers. Our results from the joint research will be considered as valuable information for healthcare specialists and stakeholders.

In the first half of the project the aim was to chart the disease area and the standard disease-management methods in Hungary. For this I made literature search, data collection and interviews with Hungarian specialists of head and neck cancer. To investigate the economic burden and the standard treatment of head and neck cancer patients, we prepare a database analysis based on real-world data, for which the arrangements have been made during the first six months.

As a research fellow my job is to develop my knowledge in the topic and to manage the project itself. Management work consists of preparing and updating the research plan, organizing effective communication between the participants, and building and maintaining relationships with the specialists.

What challenges do you face during the project, and from which experts can you ask for help?
Cooperation of ELTE and MSD ensures the opportunity to build the necessary relationships and they also give me guidance in case of emerging questions.

The database analysis, which is the main part of my research work, is performed with the assistance of the National Healthcare Services Centre (ÁEEK). During the data request process, analysis and interpretation of results; medical, methodological and IT issues can arise. In medical questions, specialists from the participating healthcare institutions – i.e. the Department of Oncoradiology from Uzsoki Hospital from Budapest; and the Department of Oto-Rhino- Laryngology and Head- Neck Surgery from the Clinic of Szeged – give professional help. IT support is provided by the administrator specialist from ÁEEK, while methodological question are cleared together with ELTE and MSD.Effective cooperation of the participating institutions is essential for the progress of my research.

The biggest challenge is the communication with experts from different areas, since an IT specialist, a physician, and an economist have totally different perspectives. Thus I have to adjust the style and structure of my interviews depending on the interviewee, and I have to transfer the results of my research work in a proper way, so as to be understandable to everyone.

You spend half of your work time at ELTE, and the other half at MSD. How do these places differ from each other regarding the environment and the tasks you do?
The shared work time gives me an opportunity to get insight into the academic world and into the life of a multinational company at the same time.

ELTE provides many possibilities during the program, including visiting lectures and do teaching tasks at the master program called Health Policy, Planning and Financing, launched in English. For me, the most challenging task at ELTE is teaching. This is a new experience to me, and teaching makes me break out of my comfort zone. In one hand, it took quite a lot of time to prepare for the courses held in English, and on the other hand, there is always a little uncertainty: What happens, if I get a question for what I don’t have an answer? Luckily I get all the professional support what I need, and despite the initial difficulties I’m looking forward to the next exercises. In addition, I can participate in several short courses and lectures organized for the teachers of the Faculty of Social Sciences at ELTE.

Furthermore, I can work with professionals from various fields at MSD, so I get insight to the everyday life and represented values of the company. The experiences gained here supplement my work done at the data request process and at ELTE. In a sense, business world is more rigorous than the freedom of research work. I had to adapt to the new terms, which was not a problem, because they received me with enthusiasm, and with a pleasant and friendly working environment. However,

this situation was new not just for me, but to ELTE and MSD also, because this is the first fellowship program launched by MSD and ELTE together in Europe.

The program is planned to be started in other European countries, and I was pleased to share my experiences about the scholarship so far. Tasks are adjusted to my knowledge and interests, and we determine the exercises together with ELTE and MSD during the program. We discuss the goals that I have to achieve in order to expand my experiences and to help my personal development.

The scholarship is for one year, so results have to be presented by the end of summer 2017. What results can you achieve by then?
In the second part of the project, focus will be on the data request and process of the results. Our goal is to write a publication based on the information collected in the first part of the program and on the results of the database analysis. The copyright version is planned to be finished by August 2017, so that the publication process can be started.

Are there any lessons or results that you can already share with us? 
As a result of my research work I compiled an epidemiological summary of head and neck cancers in Hungary. The summary contains information on the number of patients, the distribution of different head and neck cancer types, and the trends for several years in Hungary. The research plan for the database analysis is also updated regularly, based on the joint discussions and interviews. At the same time, I get the results of the data request in several rounds during the process, from which I can give more information at the end of the program.

In addition, the main steps or milestones of the project were the establishment of communication and cooperation with the participating institutes, first with ÁEEK, followed by Uzsoki Hospital and the Clinic of Szeged. In the second half of the research program I plan to develop an even higher-level cooperation.

The original interview was published on the official site of Faculty of Social Sciences