I have worked in medical affairs in the pharmaceutical industry for over 10 years now and I often get asked at a dinner or cocktail party, “Just what is it you do?” That question was a lot easier to answer when I was a practicing obstetrician. Everyone understands delivering babies and doing hysterectomies.
I pulled out my resume and, beside finding typos in it yet again, I also found that the job description for a director of medical affairs, while transparent to industry insiders, is rather obscure to outsiders and doesn’t make for easy flowing wine tasting repartee. It is not really very intriguing to talk about post market medical support for our drug portfolio, or about training clinical research associates, monitors, and managers, or about providing pharmaco-vigilance for clinical trials, or participating in departmental research and protocol review. The worst case scenario at a party is when the conversation gets hijacked by someone ranting about how drugs cost too much. So, I have developed a ploy to jazz up the conversation, modeled a bit after one used by a friend of mine.
He is an attorney, albeit a rather unconventional attorney specializing in non-profits and charities. And, years ago, when he was single, he did not at all look the part of a conventional attorney (e.g. $10,000 custom tailored Italian serge suits alluded to on the new lawyer TV show, “Suits”). He was rather rough looking, as a matter of fact, with a visage a lot like Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lewbowski.”
After work, he frequented a bar near Fisherman’s Wharf in SF. He would sit and drink and, needless to say, try to pick up women. Many women would not even talk to him, but when they did, the conversation inevitably would get to the question “So, what do you do for a living?” As soon as he uttered the word “lawyer,” the entire dynamic would shift. He became a high value commodity in the world of singles. Women who were keeping him at a distance would now lean in, smile and coo “Oh, tell me more!” But over time, my friend got bored with this stereotypical response.
So he started to play a game. When asked “What do you do?” he would answer, “I’m a mortician…you know, an undertaker.” He would get three kinds of responses.
1. A sniff and a sneer as the female spun her barstool around and away so that she was facing someone else, ANYONE else.
2. Some victims of this scam, in all tender sincerity, would say “oh, how interesting…do you like it” or “tell me more” or some other bland attempt to keep the exchange going. Lots of desperately lonely females in SF.
3. Then there were the women who said, “Your full of it. What do you really do?” Those were the ones he asked out.
So, I now employ a gambit of my own design when people ask me what I do in pharma. I say “I keep Ken and Barbie (aka the sales force) on label and out of jail.” This tart tidbit stimulates a much more lively conversation than talking about protocols, adverse events, and advisory board meetings.
But seriously, this brings me to a lesson I learned from my boss at my last job, Dr. Ernie Biczak. He said that medical affairs professionals should act and think like regulators. It is something I have really taken to heart. It is a defining phrase, right up there with “what would Jesus do.”
You can never go wrong thinking like a regulator. You will always take the side of safety. You will always stay within the legal confines of the label of your drug. You will always provide information consistent with FDA regulations. And your interactions with the agency itself will be collegial rather than adversarial. Your marketing colleagues may not always love you, but protecting the sales force and marketing management from prosecution and fines ultimately serves everyone well. Holding fast to intellectual and scientific integrity supports the financial security and stability of the company.