Interview: Medical information careers in the pharmaceutical industry
Published: Nov 13, 2017 By Seema Sharma
In a continuation of our series on careers in the pharmaceutical industry, we examine medical advisory roles and the field of medical information. We speak to Dr Ajay Shah, a PhD qualified pharmacist with a career spanning 15 years in the sector, about his experience and insights.
The development of medicines for the effective and safe treatment of disease in patients is a multi-faceted and highly regulated process in the Pharmaceutical (Pharma) Industry. After the research and development stage is complete and a candidate drug is in late stage clinical trials, regulatory, commercial, compliance and phamacovigilance functions take over. This stage also includes liaising heavily with healthcare professionals and the patients under their care to assess the drug’s suitability for the market.
During this time, medical information professionals have a critical role to facilitate the flow of accurate clinical information and data, along with providing direct advice to all parties involved. This role, and variations on it, including medical advisors, often sit within the commercial divisions of pharmaceutical companies. They are routinely required to source relevant information from internal company data, peer-reviewed literature and use their prior clinical experience. As such, most individuals in medical information roles are clinically qualified as pharmacists or medical doctors. Furthermore, a PhD., can also be seen as advantageous for the job due to the required understanding of relevant research. Another aspect of their role may include signing off commercial and marketing material against internal and external regulatory codes of practice.
In this article, we interview Dr. Ajay Shah, a qualified pharmacist who completed a PhD in Pharmaceutics and currently works as an International Medical Advisor at Vertex Pharma. He provides his unique insights into a career spanning 15 years in medical information, medical affairs and medical advisory roles, including the skills employers seek.
What is your full title and what does you current role involve?
I currently work as an International Medical Advisor at a biotechnology company called Vertex Pharmaceuticals, based in London, UK. We specialise in the treatment of Cystic Fibrosis (CF). It is a complex disease with a genetic basis that results in the defective expression of a protein, and many organs being affected. We currently have two products on the market for the treatment of CF, and a pipeline of further drugs due next year.
The main parts of my role involve working with the international commercial team on all promotional and training materials to provide input and medical sign-off. I ensure they meet the necessary medical standards, are scientifically substantiated, comply with codes of practice and are not disparaging to competitors. Another element of my role ensures that all materials are compliant with the necessary regulatory bodies. My role spans an international remit, covering all regions outside of the US. As a result, I have to be up to speed with compliance requirements in several regions including the EU, Middle East, Australia and South America.
"My role spans an international remit, covering all regions outside of the US. As a result, I have to be up to speed with compliance requirements in several regions including the EU, Middle East, Australia and South America."
At the moment, I’m also liaising with a centre of excellence in Manchester, UK, for the treatment of CF. I’m helping with a preceptorship to train internal company personnel on the real world management of patients. There are several MDT (multi-disciplinary team) members involved in the preceptorship, they include consultants, nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists, nutritionists and psychologists.
My remit also requires that I work directly with Medical Science Liaisons (MSL’s), whose role it is to update and educate customers, including physicians, face-to-face. I help with training and ensure they have the materials to make their job easier. To give an example, there are currently 70-80 presentations that are used by MSL’s to present to customers. Recently, I’ve worked to incorporate and summarise a number of the recent data studies we’ve produced into these slide decks.
Can you briefly describe your career path to date, after completing your PhD.?
I am a qualified pharmacist and completed my undergraduate course in Pharmacy at University of Nottingham, followed by a PhD., in Pharmaceutics at the School of Pharmacy in London.
My first Industry role, after I finished my PhD., was at IMS health — an information and technology services company for healthcare industries. I worked on patent protection, covering a range of products. This experience served very valuable for gaining my first position in the Pharma Industry in medical information at Organon for a short term contract. The company was a relatively small organisation, compared to many in the Pharma Industry. As a result, I had additional opportunities to work in cross-functional commercial teams across a broad product portfolio. I worked in adjacent areas including regulatory affairs, so it served as an excellent training.
After my contract ended, I went on to a further role in medical information in Astra Zeneca. My specialist area was anti-infective products, working as part of a cross-functional team that was also involved in compliance. We had to ensure things met compliance standards stipulated by drug regulatory bodies like the European Medicines Agency (EMA), but also our internal corporate compliance guidelines.
My role at Astra Zeneca extended to creating new processes and procedures — this was an aspect of the role I particularly enjoyed. For example, one project I worked on was how to deal with counterfeit medicines in the UK. After 2 years in my role, there was some re-organisation at the company and I chose to take redundancy as a result of that. I went on to secure a role at Lundbeck, also in medical information. I had two additional roles in medical information and medical affairs before joining Vertex Pharma. It’s important to note that roles in this field can sometimes be on a short term contract basis.
"It’s important to note that roles in this field can sometimes be on a short term contract basis."
What were the key influencers for you choosing this career path in Industry versus an academic career, after your PhD?
I really wanted to use the medical knowledge that I had gained as a result of my pharmacy background, to help patients with treatment. Also, to make use of the research knowledge that I had gained during my PhD. Medical information and medical affairs roles usually require that you are a registered pharmacist or medical doctor, due to the medical signatory work. Although not a prerequisite for the role, having a research background is a key advantage when applying for medical Information, medical affairs and medical advisory roles in the Pharma Industry. You are often reviewing existing research data and scientific publications in your work. A research background has helped me tremendously in many facets of my work.
What are the highlights of your working career to date?
I’ve really liked working with key opinion leaders (KOL’s) in many of my roles. They are global experts in their field, so you get the opportunity to learn so much about different therapy areas. I’ve also enjoyed developing and organising educational meetings with KOL’s.
As part of my role. I get to change existing processes, for example improving compliance, Having this influence, more so in smaller companies, is an aspect of work I’ve found really motivating.
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
I like being able to work in cross-functional teams. It encourages a great flow of ideas. For example, at the moment I’m in a matrix team that traverses the medical and commercial side of things. The marketing and sales members of the team are very knowledgable and present loads of ideas that I can provide medical input on. I enjoy having that oversight of different business areas. My current role is at a Biotech and I find it more fast-paced than my previous roles in Pharma. It can be hard to keep up at times but overall it’s an agile and exciting environment. There is so much happening right now and the company is in such a positive place.
"I like being able to work in cross-functional teams. It encourages a great flow of ideas."
From your experience, what 3 key attributes do employers value the most from candidates making a transition to medical affairs/information in Industry?
In my opinion, employers in the Pharma industry recruiting for medical information and related roles seek the following skills and knowledge:
- Strong analytical skills. You need a really strong ability to analyse scientific data. Furthermore, you need to be able to demonstrate that you can do this rapidly and succinctly.
- Excellent communication skills. You will be required to do a lot of cross-functional team working and as such, need to demonstrate outstanding communication skills. You’ll need to be able to converse effectively with people from diverse work backgrounds and at all levels of the company. For example, I might be on a team with someone in finance one day and at another point — having to communicate with the Vice-President of the company. Most industry positions involve working with colleagues across the globe, so communicating well in a cross-cultural environment is also necessary.
- Awareness of the market access process for drugs and therapies. It’s very important to understand the journey involved in getting newly developed medicines to patients. This is often referred to as market access. It’s vital to realise it’s multi-faceted and is not just as simple as getting a licence for a drug. There are many barriers that include branding, pricing issues, different regulations and compliance at a global and country level.
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