Pharmacy schools usually set out three clear paths for their students: hospital, community, or industry (if you’re amongst the relative few to bag a graduate placement right out of university). However your MPharm degree equips you with such a broad range of skills: patient communication; clinical management; analysis; scientific research; medical writing and laboratory skills – skills that I perceived as being attractive to employers beyond the traditional pharmacist sectors. And so, I became curious – where else could my MPharm degree take me? I knew I didn’t see myself working as a clinical pharmacist long-term, and whilst I enjoyed laboratory practicals I knew full-time research/academia wasn’t for me either. I knew I wanted to remain in healthcare, and loved the idea of continuously learning about the drug development process and varied therapy disease area and so I started researching alternative career trajectories, looking up people who did things a little differently. I attended an alternative pharmacy careers conference, held at the University of East Anglia, where I first heard about the plethora of non-conventional careers for pharmacists, one of which was medical business consultancy and piqued my interest in the consultancy world. I started doing my research and secured a job within the Medical Affairs division of a growing medical communications agency to start right after qualifying as a pharmacist, and I haven’t left the industry since!
This blog is not intended to dissuade you from a career as a pharmacist, but rather, hopes to inform anyone who is interested of an alternative career path since I realise that information about my industry as an alternative avenue is lacking, and it is a path which has been immensely rewarding for me.
So firstly, what is medical communications (or ‘med comms’ as it’s affectionately known)? Medical communications companies typically work with pharmaceutical companies (as our clients) to execute projects relating to the research, development, approval or promotion of a drug/medical device. Pharmaceutical clients outsource work to med comms agencies as we are experts in our chosen fields, whether that be Medical Affairs, Medical Education, Market Access, Health Technology Assessment (HTA)/Health Economics or Regulatory Affairs (to name a few). Once contracted by the client, you essentially become an extension of the pharmaceutical company, partnering with them to execute the project successfully.
“So what do you actually do on a day-to-day basis?”
is probably the most common question I get! So to summarise some examples of projects I’ve worked on/managed: medical writing for NICE submissions (where companies summarise a drug’s clinical/cost-effectiveness data to seek reimbursement by the NHS), systematic literature reviews (SLRs), the development of internal training materials to educate pharmaceutical reps on novel drug data/drug devices, the organisation and execution of advisory boards, and the development of market access value materials. I have experience in both the medical writing as well as the project/client account management side, usually working on multiple projects from multiple clients across a range of therapeutic areas. The variety keeps the work very engaging as I am essentially working for multiple pharmaceutical clients at a given time. Med comms agencies generally offer a lot of autonomy over your project load, there are usually many horizontal/vertical career progression opportunities and depending on the company, there might be exciting incentives/rewards. I’ve also personally found that my clinical experience as a healthcare provider enhances my daily practice, both in thinking of the bigger picture impact on the patients, as well as building great rapports with other healthcare professionals (who are a key stakeholder for the pharmaceutical industry clients). The med comms industry can also serve as a great steppingstone into other careers e.g. roles in the pharmaceutical industry, or public health bodies such as NICE/MHRA etc. to name a few.
Of course, there are negative aspects to every job. The world of med comms can be challenging at times, the hours can be long depending on project deadlines, and you sometimes may be asked to travel to meeting/congresses which may not be as glamorous as it sounds – sometimes you’re so busy you only manage to see the four walls of your event venue! Another key consideration is the adjustment from a healthcare provision role where you are on your feet and interacting with patients for most of the day, to an office-based job. However, I see working in the pharmaceutical industry as an alternative way to reach patients and have an impact on their lives. Pharmaceutical sector employees work behind the scenes of front-line healthcare, conducting the necessary research to make drug development possible, developing content summarising a medicine’s key efficacy and safety information to help clinicians bring the right medication to the right patient’s bedside, and pushing medications through approval/reimbursement processes to grant national patient access. In addition, as a partner to the pharmaceutical industry, med comms agencies stay close to cutting edge science and often have the opportunity to get involved in current health issues, for example med comms agencies could be employed to conduct SLRs to inform research on COVID-19 therapy candidates.
To finish off – I know that many pharmacists begin searching for alternative pharmacy careers because they’re tired of usual bugbears such as weekend shifts, potentially rigid salaries/opportunities for progression, and may often compare their careers with that of their colleagues in the private sectors who may not need to work weekends/public holidays and may receive financial rewards from time to time. However, after studying a vocational degree such as Pharmacy, sometimes all we’ve ever known is how to be a pharmacist – it can therefore be difficult to know what else we would be good at, or what role could fulfil our career desires. If you’ve got this far, my guess is that you’re quite open to considering a different career avenue. My advice to you would be to conduct deep and thorough research into other options by reading blogs/company websites, reaching out to individuals on LinkedIn, and conducting work experience/internships wherever possible to really consider whether your strengths/interests align with the role before making the switch. As pharmacists, our degree equips us with an array of skills that would suit a variety of roles, but we need to ensure the role equips us with what we need! One last piece advice, it is a good idea to retain your GPhC registration for two reasons: firstly, beyond med comms there are lots of careers in the pharmaceutical industry that require an active GPhc registration, and secondly in case you want to do a full U-turn back into a clinical career after trying something a little different.
Author: Shahad Atrah MPharm
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