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Innovation Isn't Just New Medicines and Diagnostic Inventions, but also Creativity in All Aspects

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Interview with Michael Devoy

Dr Michael Devoy is the Chief Medical Officer and Head of Medical Affairs and Pharmacovigilance at Bayer, a company where he has held several senior roles since 2007. We spoke to Michael about a range of topics, including why he first joined the pharma industry, patient engagement strategies, and the key to successful collaborations between pharma and not-for-profit organisations.

Following completion of your medical training, what inspired you to start a career in the pharmaceutical industry in the early 1990s? When I studied medicine, I also did an additional honours year in pharmacology and through that I was exposed to scientists from the Wellcome Foundation. Therefore, I had a fascination both with what medicine could do to impact disease, as well as the research and development side of things. I then trained in general medicine and spent time in specialist areas such as nephrology and diabetes. From these experiences, I found that I wanted to combine my interests in science and medicine while driving better care for patients, so I started off in the pharmaceutical industry in the area of early clinical development. It was really to link together science, research, and medical practice in order to have a greater impact on patient lives than I maybe would as an individual physician.

To what extent has the role of a medical affairs professional evolved since you first began working in the industry? I think it’s changed enormously over that time. MA as a distinct area really started around the early to mid-1990s and I’ve seen it develop enormously over the last 20 years. What I have observed is that MA has become increasingly central to what pharmaceutical companies do and how they bring their innovations to physicians and patients. They have also become a strategic partner together with R&D and commercial colleagues. At one time its function was simply to answer medical enquiries and maybe occasionally talk to physicians, but in the modern pharmaceutical industry it’s become a key pillar of how we develop our medicines and make them available to physicians and patients. And in practical terms, MA is often in the forefront of areas like medical science liaison, which was pretty embryonic at the start of my career but is now a key interface between companies and physicians in terms of discussing and understanding the science and medicine behind the products we are bringing to patients.

MA has become increasingly central to what pharmaceutical companies do.

In 2017, you made the pledge #WeWontRest to engage patients and ensure their voices are heard and their needs addressed. What role do you and your team play in championing the patient perspective? I’m very passionate about bringing the patient voice into everything we do. Bayer was an active supporter of the #WeWontRest campaign and myself and many of my colleagues took part in it. For Bayer, putting patients at the heart of what we do has been key for us for as long as we’ve existed and we have a corporate mission ‘Science for a Better Life’, which goes across all our divisions, not just pharmaceuticals. In the last few years, there has been more engagement with patient advocacy groups and caregivers, particularly in MA. We now try to bring that patient voice into the front and centre of our activities.

At Bayer we also have something called the patient insights and engagement (PIE) network, which is not a top-down initiative, but one where colleagues come together across our organisation who have that passion to listen to the patient voice in their daily work, whether that’s in R&D, commercial, regulatory affairs, MA, or any other function. We’ve found that’s a very productive way of sharing insights, passions, and best practice across our organisation.

One of the key themes in this issue of GOLD is creativity. Do you think creativity is key in developing solutions for challenges such as patient engagement? Absolutely. In my mind, innovation isn’t just new medicines and diagnostic inventions, but also creativity in all aspects of what we do, particularly in areas such as patient engagement. Patients clearly want to be more engaged in decisions about their health and, therefore, we should understand what their needs and expectations are. And we should be thinking of them not simply as patients, but as customers too. In other industries, we see companies like Amazon take very imaginative customer-centric approaches and I think that’s something all of us experience in our daily lives. We then wonder why in healthcare, for example when we get a hospital appointment or find out test results, instead of it being a simple interaction, it is a complex and time-consuming journey. I think that is because in healthcare we still have a long way to go to have a customer-centric view of what we’re doing.

Having been involved in numerous partnerships with not-for-profit organisations as CMO of Bayer, what are the key lessons you have learnt about how pharma can ensure such collaborations have the highest possible impact? At Bayer we believe strongly in our overall responsibility to society. Our goal is to find innovations that have a meaningful impact on some of the major challenges of our time in healthcare. We also want to do that in a sustainable way, and make that progress available on as wide a scale as possible so that it benefits people regardless of their income or what part of the world they live in. This is not something one company can do alone so we’ve involved ourselves in a lot of partnerships to improve healthcare. For example, we have a long-term collaboration in the area of neglected diseases which are not in the forefront of pharmaceutical R&D, where we’ve been supporting the World Health Organization (WHO) in the fight against Chagas disease and African sleeping sickness with drugs free of charge and financial assistance for logistics and distribution. What we’ve learnt is that it is always important to have a collaborative effort across a wide range of stakeholders, including non-governmental organisations, physicians, and governments. You need to bring all those partners together in a constructive and appropriate way to get solutions.

We believe strongly in our overall responsibility to society.

Finally, if you had to pick two people who have inspired you the most throughout your career, who would they be? One is my father, who was an engineer and he always encouraged me to grasp opportunities, take on challenges, and be confident that I can always solve and achieve something. The other was a boss who I had quite early on in my pharma career who told me something which I’ve used as a personal mantra and tell people who work for me now. He once said to me: ‘Mike why do you keep asking me for permission? I’d rather you take the decision and then come back and ask for forgiveness’. I thought that was good advice and it has stuck with me ever since.

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