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Medical Affairs in the Age of COVID-19

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

Words by Michaila Byrne

‘Put your mask on first before you take care of others…’

When it comes to leadership during a crisis, this aeroplane saying has become strikingly fitting. In a recent webinar titled ‘Medical Affairs in the Age of COVID-19’, hosted by the Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs (ACMA) and led by Chairman and CEO, Dr William Soliman, guest speakers reflected on the COVID-19 era so far and discussed how medical affairs professionals can address their changes in circumstance and how leaders can step up to better guide their teams. “It’s been a very unique, stressful, and anxiety-provoking situation for everyone in the healthcare industry, especially on the front lines” says Dr Sam Girgis, a New Jersey physician who joined to share his experience. “The unique thing about the COVID-19 disease is that it has a very large spectrum of presentation and severity. It can range from asymptomatic carriers, to mild flu-like illness, to respiratory failure and even multi organ failure requiring critical care.” Reflecting on his time in New York City practising during the H1/N1 influenza pandemic, Ebola, and SARS, Dr Girgis predicts that COVID-19 will spread far more widely. “None of them really came to the US like COVID-19 has.” He calls for more treatment investigations since all those currently underway are experimental, with drugs being used off label. Dr Jill Massey, Senior Vice President, Melinda Therapeutics, provided the industry perspective, delving into the importance of adaptability and leadership in a crisis. How can medical affairs build trust with stakeholders from a distance? Massey highlights competence, consistency, customer experience, and quality as key, advising that content doesn’t breach any of these, and that tools and technologies deliver on this front. “It’s important to acknowledge that what we are trying to do has not changed, how we are trying to do it has changed,” she said.

Additionally, recognising the type of crisis that you are dealing with is vital: is it an emerging, unfolding, or exploding crisis? Once identified, businesses can activate plans and taskforces to retain continuity and ensure that supply and expectations are managed accordingly. Massey stipulates that COVID-19 is an exploding crisis but adds: “Just because it is one or the other, it does not mean that it can’t transform from one into another.” Massey ended by stressing the importance of leaders not only looking out for their employees, but also looking after themselves. “It’s important that you’re doing what you need to for yourself as a leader so you can be available to take care of your teams and all of your stakeholders. Whether that’s taking it out on a treadmill or yoga mat or meditation… your employees are looking to you for leadership.”  Bob Fell, Senior Medical Science Liaison, Sanofi took to the virtual stage with his favourite Einstein quote: ‘In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity’. Despite clinical trials slowing down and numbers not being met, Fell encourages the industry to focus on innovation during this period. He highlighted the success of platforms such as Zoom, digital acceleration, and telemedicine, and like Massey, encouraged professionals to focus on self-development. “This is a really good time to be focussing on learning and growth. There’s a couple of traps I think we can get into here. It’s easy to get antsy. It’s a great time for board or other types of certification, podcasts, IBP etc. I would do things that are important to you in the field that you practice in,” Fell explains. Optimism is a force multiplier and medical affairs has an honourable opportunity to become the lighthouse of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are all being challenged, from frontline physicians, to business leaders, to isolated workforces, but within this uncertainty lies opportunity to not only improve ourselves, but also the industry’s future overall.

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