Mark Brooke: Grant could not come at a better time

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Lung Foundation Australia has secured a grant from a global MSD program while the organisation's CEO Mark Brooke says it has been managing an unprecedented surge in demand for its services.

Mr Brooke spoke to BioPharmaDispatch after confirmation Lung Foundation Australia was one of only a very small number of organisations to receive funding from MSD's global program designed to provide support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The grant is incredibly important to us. MSD is one of the partners who have proactively reached out during the pandemic to ask whether they could provide support. We have had to really find more inventive ways to keep going and MSD are supporting our Healthy Emotions and Lungs Project."

Mr Brooke said, "The project recognises that people with lung cancer have substantial emotional and mental health issues as a result of their diagnosis. Cancer takes a toll. We have been building a suite of digital resources that will enable patients to get access to the best possible advice on how they can manage their lung cancer.

"The grant from MSD could not come at a better time. It is helping to keep team members employed and it also aligns with the emerging evidence that shows people with lung disease are experiencing increased levels of anxiety as a consequence of the pandemic."

"We are pleased that the Lung Foundation Australia was selected to receive a grant from MSD’s Global Office of Corporate Responsibility as part of our COVID-19 Regional Grants initiative," said MSD in a statement.

"These temporary grants were established to support not for profit organisations around the world who are working to support COVID-19 related response efforts."

Mr Brooke continued, "The MSD staff themselves ran a fundraiser for us last week, raising some money because they knew we have cancelled our gala ball. The industry is often maligned but all I have seen since the beginning of the year is a very respectful, very positive, very proactive engagement of, 'How can we aid you in your mission?' You cannot ask for more than that."

Mr Brooke said 2020 is a significant year for Lung Foundation Australia because it is the 30th anniversary of its creation.

"We have taken a $1.2 million hit to our community fundraising. All of our fundraisers are people with lung disease and their family. They are not out in the community raising money and we have had to cancel a substantial number of community fundraising events, including our gala ball."

On the patient impact of the pandemic, Mr Brooke said Lung Foundation Australia had recently completed another survey of patients with lung disease.

"We really wanted to just get a sense about what they were thinking. It shows the now second wave, particularly impacting in Victoria, has people frightened. It is having an enormous impact upon, I think, the mental health, particularly of people with lung disease who see themselves as incredibly vulnerable.

"This is on the back of the bushfire emergencies, when Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney were inundated with smoke haze. We have seen a 12-fold increase in the number of people contacting our support services.

"There is a thirst for information that goes beyond the excellent work of our public health officials. When you are living with a chronic lung disease or you have lung cancer, you want to know more, so we have been inundated by people wanting to get extra information."

Mr Brooke said the organisation's expert working group have advised it to expect a "long haul" with different parts of the country going in and out of levels of social distancing restrictions.

"That means we need to tailor our support to meet the needs of patients. The fact is that many of our members do not have access to the internet - they are seniors who need us to mail information.

"As an organisation, we have to be aware, not alarmed, and ensure we are providing accurate and trusted information. It is incredibly important that our work helps ensure patients get the care they need.

"We are really frightened by the fact that lung cancer referrals have dropped by 50 per cent over the last four months. That is incredibly worrying and a ticking time bomb given that when it comes to a diagnosis of lung cancer, the later the diagnosis, the worse the prognosis.

"One of the most critical pieces of advice is that, wherever possible in this new normal, people must maintain usual care. If you have a persistent cough that has been there for a few weeks or months, then that is not normal and that is not the flu or coronavirus. It could be something much more sinister.

"The advent of telemedicine has been warmly welcomed by many patients, but it needs to be a blended approach, particularly for people with lung disease."

Mr Brooke added, "I am incredibly proud of my team. Maybe one of the lasting positive legacies of the pandemic is that people will take health and hygiene more seriously - washing our hands, not coming to work when you have got the sniffles. All of that has aided in the fight against influenza. So there is a positive side to this, but that is probably the only positive that we have been able to identify, the fact that people have really started to think about their lung health more proactively. But what a terrible way to take it seriously."