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The Eyes and Ears of Pharma

Words by Cheyenne Eugene

The medical affairs function is always seeking opportunities to better understand the needs and experiences of healthcare professionals and patients, but could MA go further by increasing the scope of their partnerships with external organisations?

Have you ever tried getting dressed in the dark? If so, it probably did not end well. If your senses are deprived and you are not clear on what is going on around you, you cannot make the best decisions. This sentiment also exists in the pharmaceutical industry. However, pharma has access to ‘sensors’ in the form of industry representatives, think tanks, knowledge and innovation communities, academic institutions, and so on. These industry-associated organisations have eyes and ears in places that pharma companies might not. How can partnerships between these groups and the medical affairs function add value to the industry, healthcare systems, and patients?

“We deal in really complex, important, and evidence-based issues,” says Andy Powrie-Smith, Executive Director of Communications and Partnerships, The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA). From the research and development of new treatments through to regulatory decision-making, these organisations have their fingers on pulses. “At all the points along that chain, there is evidence and impact to understand, as well as policy decisions that will be made off the back of that,” says Powrie-Smith. Industry-associated groups help to shape the conversations that pharma is having: “They are important stakeholders for the pharma industry because they play a vital role in pushing the boundaries of our thinking,” says David Dellamonica, Head, Digital and Innovation, Oncology, Europe and Canada, AstraZeneca, and Member of the Education Supervisory Board, EIT Health. “It is about how we advocate for purposes that matter to our industry, and ultimately, to the patients.”

But in the context of MA, what are the current gaps in knowledge that these groups could help to bridge? Powrie-Smith highlights these organisations’ “ability to bring unusual or different stakeholders together around a particular topic.” He continues: “When you have conversations outside of an organisation with new perspectives and new thoughts, that is really helpful, whether those ideas are adopted, or they shape existing ways or add to them.” If you connect the right stakeholders, the right conversations follow. In agreement, Dellamonica says: “I think these groups are providing the ability for us to not live in silos but have much more connection with the world.” For MA, who aim to improve engagement and communication with all relevant stakeholders – both internal and external – and drive a culture of collaboration, this function is priceless.

However, in the same vein, Dellamonica sees an issue with the scope of conversations that are being had. He explains: “I think the gaps mostly lie in our lack of ability to talk freely. Because we are in a regulated world, and while this is overall a good thing, sometimes it blocks us from talking too much.” While restrictions are necessary, communication is the most effective vehicle for understanding impact and forging new directions. “Sometimes we go too far in one direction... It is caused by our limited ability to understand our ecosystem,” he urges. This necessary-but-heavy regulation, and subsequent lack of conversation, can also hinder transformation. Powrie-Smith summarises: “It is often an evolution rather than revolution.”

It is often an evolution rather than revolution

No industry conversation is complete without addressing the pandemic. Public health systems have endured intense pressure over the past 18 months and, being the first point of contact for HCPs, MA must be the face of certainty and assurance. Powrie-Smith elaborates: “I think how we evolve and manage our healthcare in the context of an ageing population, the pandemic, and increased levels of chronic disease, is a debate on which we are keen to partner and understand the role of innovation within.” A catastrophic backlog of health issues and intensified pressure on public finances are set to exacerbate existing strains on our healthcare systems. To alleviate this, MA are taking a proactive role in forging partnerships with external groups like the EFPIA. Referring to this kind of collaboration, Dellamonica says: “We are not ‘using’, we are ‘partnering’.”

We are not ‘using’, we are ‘partnering’

The backbone of industry-associated organisations and the MA function consists of similar vertebrae: collecting data and building evidence, connecting stakeholders, and driving conversations. Whether MA partners with industry representatives, think tanks, knowledge and innovation communities, or academic institutions, there are several fountains of knowledge from which to drink. Partnership is powerful and gives us greater access to understanding our environment. Dellamonica confirms: “We need to be much more externally driven, instead of internally. Partnering with these groups brings so much value.”

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