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Specialty career profile: pharmaceutical medicine

Dr Rebecca Curtis shares her experience of what influenced her in choosing pharmaceutical medicine, how she got into the specialty, and what it involves.

What influenced you in choosing pharmaceutical medicine?

I had been interested in pursuing a career outside hospital medicine or general practice ever since I was a medical student. I explored all sorts of things: occupational medicine, public health medicine, informatics, armed forces, aviation medicine, pharmaceutical medicine, as well as careers outside medicine.

The aspects that attracted me to pharmaceutical medicine were the variety of career choices available, the possibility of travel, the commercial aspects and the possibilities for innovation.

At first I found it bewildering. It takes a while to get to grips with the whole development cycle: from the various phases of preclinical and clinical trials, through regulatory, to marketing and sales, with aspects such as safety and market access thrown in along the way.

I started off in pharmacovigilance and, once I had got used to the various acronyms, found it fascinating and liberating. I was immediately thrown into people management and recruitment but it was a great challenge and good fun. It was refreshing to discover that pharmaceutical companies are generally very much more efficiently run than the NHS.

What training do you have to do to get into pharmaceutical medicine?

A postgraduate qualification is normally required although not always. MRCGP [Membership of the Royal College of General Practitioners] or MRCP [Membership of the Royal Colleges of Physicians] are sometimes requested in job specs although any postgraduate degree generally is acceptable.

What rotations did you do in your training and what did you find helpful?

I had done A&E, obstetrics and gynaecology, psychiatry, paediatrics, as well as a year in general practice. I had also done some rheumatology and dermatology in my house jobs. Aspects from all of these come in handy within pharmaceutical medicine as you generally move through quite a few therapy areas within your career, so it is very useful to have a basic grounding in a wide range of specialties.

Do you work closely with other specialties?

Not in the traditional sense. You will generally have contact with clinicians in the NHS when working within the pharmaceutical industry, whether investigators in clinical trials or key opinion leaders (KOLs) who you go to for advice in the development of a product, or a clinician who has reported an adverse event that you need to find out more information from.

What are the best aspects of working in pharmaceutical medicine?

Autonomy, being able to generally mould your job to what you want it to be, to be able to mould a team, teamwork across all sorts of different departments: clinical development, marketing, sales, market access, safety, business development and business intelligence. It’s great to have your ideas heard and to gain a breadth of experience across different fields. There are also opportunities for travel and a wide choice of careers within the industry. The job is never the same day to day.

The pharmaceutical industry these days is always morphing – companies merging and restructuring as well as companies having to adapt to changes within the NHS or a product failing in late-stage development. Therefore, roles don’t tend to stay the same for very long. Do not join this industry if you are averse to change!

What are the main challenges of working in pharmaceutical medicine?

You can become isolated as a medic, especially if you are the only medic in your company, although I have not found this to be the case. The pharmaceutical industry these days is always morphing – companies merging and restructuring as well as companies having to adapt to changes within the NHS or a product failing in late-stage development. Therefore, roles don’t tend to stay the same for very long. Do not join this industry if you are averse to change! Personally, I find it interesting and think I would get bored if my role stayed the same for too long.

Sentences I heard repeatedly when I joined the pharmaceutical industry included ‘joining the dark side’. This, I think, is really unfair. The pharmaceutical industry needs good medics to assist in clinical development as well as the ethical marketing of products. The industry has come a long way and has had some remarkable breakthroughs – being part of the British pharmaceutical industry is something I am proud of.

What are your typical working hours?

Hours tend to vary although generally are sociable/family friendly. Busy times – eg before a product launch, preparing a market access dossier, during preparation for a pharmacovigilance or good clinical practice (GCP) audit, or during the preparation for a clinical trial – can mean very long days and some evening and weekend working.

However, these are generally the exception, although it will differ role to role and company to company. If your role includes a lot of travel, this does eat into the hours and such roles will generally spend much more time away from home.

Are there opportunities for teaching or lecturing in pharmaceutical medicine?

Yes, some companies allow their medics to spend time teaching, lecturing or doing a clinic. I would also recommend asking about this at interview – some jobs are just too busy to include this.

Are there opportunities for research?

It depends on the job – many pharmaceutical physicians publish on the back of research they have conducted during their roles.

Do you work closely with other healthcare colleagues or groups?

In collaboration with a medical school, I set up a medical student rotation in pharmaceutical medicine at one of the companies I worked at. It was a great project that worked very well. I am also on a BMA advisory board and a Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine working group. We as an industry work regularly with charities and patient groups.

What is the required mix of skills for this specialty?

I would say open-mindedness, flexibility, willingness to learn about aspects outside medicine, ability to think ‘outside the box’, presentation and communication skills, ability to work as a team player and high attention to detail.

As a medical director thinking about medical advisers (entry-level positions in the industry) or senior medical advisers, I would like to see hard workers, who are willing to put in the extra hours when necessary, people who relish autonomy and the chance to make their own decisions, those who see solutions rather than problems, and those who are consistently meticulous.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in your specialty?

Contact the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine as they will be able to put you in contact with medics in the industry you can have a chat to and see whether a career in pharmaceutical medicine is right for you.

Whatever you do, don’t be put off by negative comments you may receive from colleagues in hospital medicine or general practice. There are all sorts of options within pharmaceutical medicine and it is well worth exploring if you think it might be a possibility for you.