Words by Isabel O'Brien
Dr Juby Jacob-Nara, Vice President and Global Medical Head for Respiratory, Allergy, and Gastro-Intestinal Diseases, Sanofi, speaks to Isabel O’Brien about what drew her from medicine to medical affairs, the future of MSLs and her passion for continuous learning
Dr Juby Jacob-Nara was thriving in her career as a physician when she was tempted to dip her toe in the pharmaceutical industry in 1999. Having practised medicine in multiple countries, she had experienced the sector from the other side of the curtain and felt she had insights to offer as pharma embarked on a new era of medical education and enhanced credibility.
A glittering career in medical affairs has followed, spanning some of the industry’s leading organisations, including Merck & Co, Novartis, GSK, AstraZeneca, Pfizer and now Sanofi. Dr Jacob-Nara has focused on therapy areas such as women’s health, preventative vaccines and biologics in chronic diseases, but she found a niche in precision medicine at Sanofi, focusing on pulmonology, rhinology, allergy and gastroenterology since becoming Vice President and Global Medical Head in 2019.
I’ve always aimed to be a leader that doesn’t just talk a lot, but truly walks that talk
The pharma aficionado surrenders a morning of her vacation for our interview, squeezing in a chat before the whole host of family descends on her home just outside New York City for an afternoon of food and fun. Family is important to her, but so is her work, and she exudes dedication. “I’ve always aimed to be a leader that doesn’t just talk a lot, but truly walks that talk,” she says. This takes many forms but includes being a committed mentor for younger colleagues.
Dr Jacob-Nara is also a staunch advocate of dismantling silos and continuous learning. “One thing you don’t want to do is stagnate,” she urges. And she has certainly refused to stagnate. Aside from her robust experience as a medical professional, she has also held roles in sales and marketing and has two MBAs, an MPH and a DHSc to her name.
Her passion for the industry is far reaching, and Dr Jacob-Nara’s diverse experience in pharma means she has a holistic understanding of the entire ecosystem. Despite falling into the industry almost by accident, she has never looked back. “If you want to be a mover and a shaker and take that needle from zero to 120, impacting the health of millions, then you can do that by joining pharma.”
Why did the pharmaceutical industry appeal and how did you make the move from medicine?
Back in the day, when you thought of pharma, you didn’t really think of physicians in pharma. Pharma was just known as ‘the dark side’. Then, when I was working in dermatology in the US, I met quite a few people [in pharma], and they were initiating this concept of the Medical Science Liaison (MSL) programme. They were trying to find models in which HCP engagement could be optimised from a science perspective, not just from a sales or marketing perspective. It was interesting, so I thought ‘let me try it’, and I really wasn’t planning on leaving medicine. The intent was to be one of the pioneers of this whole MSL programme as I’ve always been a fan of helping to educate people. It’s something about communicating complex matters and making them into digestible bites. I thought after a while I would go back to practising medicine, but 23 years later I’m still here. In every role, the focus has been all about the science and benefitting patients. Pharma has offered me opportunities to make such a difference in the lives of so many patients.
How has your experience in sales and marketing helped you in your role as a medical affairs professional?
I mentor a lot of people, and you need to understand who you are first. Understand what your passions are, understand what excites you and what you enjoy doing. Unless you experiment, you might not find out. If you’re truly a medical person and that’s all you love, I’m not going to encourage you to do something else, but I personally benefitted significantly in the different roles and functions that I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of. Practising medicine is about understanding all the pieces and how the pieces fit. It’s truly about diagnosing. In order to diagnose, you need to have a history, you need to have the inputs, the outputs, and you put it together to come out with the best solution.
Medical is about understanding unmet public health needs, evidence generation, data dissemination. And so being in sales helped me to see challenges that sales professionals go through on a day-to-day basis. I went into a marketing role and, being a medical person, I could bring my expertise in and say, “well, here’s how you could think of it and do it”. It was easier to bring solutions to the forefront. The brilliant thing is that it works both ways, you’re really benefitting yourself, but you are also benefitting the cross-functional teams.
What do you think of the assertion that MSL teams may grow in the future and sales teams may shrink?
Will MSL teams grow? Absolutely. MSLs can speak in a way where there are limitations for sales teams. When an expert or HCP has a question, an MSL is able to address it in the most scientific and clear manner. This is something that HCPs like because there is this free range of conversation. It really is a conversation with scientific exchange rather than a sales pitch. But that doesn’t mean sales organisations are going to shrink. I think they are going to change. They have to adopt a model that is continuously learning and continuously adapting, demonstrating agility. You may not have a model where you’re going in all the time, it might be through the computer or through digital advances. But there’s a hybrid model that evolves, and this will continue.
Will MSL teams grow? Absolutely. MSLs can speak in a way where there are limitations for sales teams
What kind of shift have you seen in the way healthcare professionals consume medical education and why do you think this has occurred?
The pandemic was a definitive step in a direction and things are not going back to what they were, but there was a lot that continued to happen, adding tremendous value. So, in the future, the hybrid model will continue. The pandemic has instilled a certain amount of fear in some people more than the others. A lot of folks do not want to do activities that take them physically to a location, but there are interactions that happen face-to-face that you can’t put a price on. You can’t just do away with it. But [HCPs] want the option of podcasts so they get to listen in their own free time because they often can’t define that free time given their multitude of responsibilities. And so, I think that this evolving landscape of interaction, of education and even of congresses will continue. No one wanted to experience the pandemic, but it’s really helped people think outside the box.
What can the industry do to attract people from all backgrounds into STEM and pharma in particular?
We have an international VIE programme, which is a pharmacist fellowship programme that strives to attract young, up-and-coming talent from a pool of doctoral graduates and help them gain exposure and industry experience at Sanofi. We offer that diversity of experience not just for them to explore and have the opportunity but also for us to see how we can leverage and open new roles. The functions are what they are, but they are continually evolving in terms of deepening the landscape of treatment and how much knowledge we really need. Pharma is a space where there cannot be tunnel vision, it is very broad. If you want a taste of how to make an impact in people’s lives but truly still work in your space, this is a great place to be. Many of those in industry are truly demonstrating that we’re not here as the dark side or a bad guy. Pharma embodies different careers to help optimise our ultimate goal, which is to do good, optimise treatment options and bring value to patients. And you can do that from so many different angles. I think that is really important to emphasise.
Why is continuous learning so important to you and how do you recommend people find time for it?
Having a strong supportive family is super helpful. My husband was always supportive in my career journey and trajectory. I also ensure I find time to be a mum, a wife and a daughter. And why I felt compelled to study is because I needed to change the narrative of being a ‘just a physician’. So, I have two MBAs and many more physicians have done the same in the industry. It helps equip us to better understand how to do forecasting, how to do discounted cash flow analysis, or different marketing research activities. It empowers us.
We’re in an age now in which women are getting more recognition and are finally being given more opportunities than before. When I first started, it wasn’t like that. It was a world where everyone at the top was a man and not only did I want to empower myself by being credentialed to further demonstrate ‘hey I can do this’, but, at the end of the day, the proof was in the pudding in terms of what my deliverables were in each role. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to be able to succeed, but it was not easy. There were sleepless nights and frustration to no end, but I do believe that continuous learning keeps us on our toes.
This article features in GOLD 23 – read the full issue here.