Words by Kirstie Turner
“We have to remember that medical affairs is about people; it is about emotions and medical conditions. It is understanding the human and behavioural responses. MA is a lynchpin of the translation between the drugs and the outcomes that actually work”, says Rajni Dogra, Strategic Communication and Planning Director, Healthcare Consultancy Group, reminding us of the foundations of MA. Lack of patient and value centricity is jeopardising the MA lynchpin and it is threatening to break; the role must evolve, to ensure it keeps the wheels of pharma and patients turning together. Does the responsibility for securing this crucial lynchpin lie with internal training or external recruitment?
The skills and qualifications currently available in the MA talent pool are not matching up to the capabilities required to meet the demands of the industry, creating a barrier for development of the role. Pol Vandenbroucke, Chief Medical Officer, Pfizer Hospital Business Unit, speaks at eyeforpharma Barcelona: “There is a real mismatch between the qualifications that we see in our talent and the healthcare needs
and the industry expectations that we have.”
We need to acquire and develop talent to build a strong MA organisation
One solution is the training and development of current MA teams. This could be implemented through qualification programmes, such as the IFAPP (International Federation of Associations of Pharmaceutical Physicians) and King’s College London collaboration: the MA in Medicines Development Programme. Vandenbroucke describes the project: “The objective is to have a programme that deals with all the aspects of MA within the framework of medicine development, targeting life sciences professionals.” The programme aims to train participants to improve stakeholder satisfaction and patient outcomes. By investing in the training of current staff, companies can take employees who know the industry and equip them with the qualifications required for a shift in the role.
Internal improvement could also be achieved by inclusion of patients in MA teams’ decision-making process. Heather Moses, Head of MA, Roche, says:
“We need to stop discussing things with an internal focus and consider what is happening externally – we are having to close the gap.” Open discussion with patients could help to fill this gap; patients should be viewed as experts in their disease and be treated as such. Vandenbroucke says: “I was involved in the Lipitor programme; I look back and I cannot understand why we didn’t ask patients to look at our protocols or study programmes, or to provide input on what was important to them. This could have avoided quite a few delays and difficulties.” This lack of patient involvement is hindering progress for pharma companies.
On the other hand, internal development through training and open discussion may not lend itself to a quick and efficient solution. An alternative option is external recruitment of candidates who do not have a MA background but can offer an outside perspective, with a focus on outcomes and satisfaction. Christopher Keenan, Head, World Medical Customer Engagement, Medical Capabilities, Bristol-Myers Squibb, discusses his experience as an external recruit: “I was the first person to run MA without a medical degree. My background is in financial services and I was a management consultant for 15 years. What I brought to the table was diversity of thinking on how to operate. There were others in that role who didn’t have the same life experience that I had, so I think that it is critically important to bring diversity into the workforce.”
It is critically important to bring diversity into the workforce
The idea of diversity within the workplace suggests that the answer could lie with a mix of external recruitment and internal development, as Vandenbroucke believes: “We need to acquire and develop talent to build a strong MA organisation.” This could create a blend of experience in MA, with external candidates injecting a dose of patient and value centricity. He continues: “It is incredible what can happen and how minds can open when people with very different approaches to a particular issue come together and try to understand each other.” The development of a diverse and open team has the potential to enhance MA and embrace the changes that are required.
Action needs to be taken to develop the role of MA; teams should focus on diversity of experience, with the implementation of internal training and consideration of external recruitment. Vandenbroucke concludes: “The environment for pharma has changed fundamentally over the last decade. I believe that MA is uniquely placed to address these challenges, but there is a need to develop talent to build a strong MA organisation that encompasses the required competencies.”
To recruit, or not to recruit? For pharma and MA, there is no question: only a combination of vibrant new recruits and refocussed training can ensure the place of MA in this ever-changing industry.