Since the enactment of orphan drug legislation in the USA, Europe and several other countries, an increasing number of treatments for rare diseases have been developed and many of them been approved for marketing. However, such treatments tend to be priced very high, and access to effective treatments remains a major challenge for patients with rare diseases – despite active involvement of patients and their support organizations in various stages of basic and applied research and commercial development. In order to allow patients to benefit from treatments proved effective for their diseases, we need to better understand why this challenge persists, and what steps might be taken to address it. To that end, we organized a policy-engagement workshop, bringing together individuals and organizations with direct experience of trying to secure access to a treatment for a rare disease along with individuals with relevant expertise in regulatory and commissioning processes for new medicines. With additional input from social scientists who offered different perspectives on the value of patient involvement, the workshop aimed to initiate a dialogue among the participants about how to address the challenge in a sustainable manner. Discussions at the workshop stressed that active involvement of patients is as valuable in the regulatory and commissioning processes as in the research and development of new medicines. However, it also highlighted certain risks and costs associated with such involvement. These include the costs of adjusting to abrupt changes in regulatory and commissioning processes, and the risk of being perceived as too close to commercial interests. To optimize use of scarce resources and ensure continuing active involvement, such risks and costs need to be better managed. Participants also noted that, owing to advances in genomic technologies, common diseases are also becoming divided into rare sub-categories, which are equally eligible for orphan drug designation. Consequently, involvement of wider patient communities beyond rare disease communities will be critical for continuing discussions about patients’ involvement in regulatory and commissioning processes, and to consider how patients and their support organizations can best work with other stakeholders – including companies, regulators and policymakers – to ensure access to effective medicines.
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