Many people work in industries that produce everyday conveniences—cars, entertainment devices, home appliances, and the like—but I’m lucky to work in one that routinely produces miracles.
Recently, our industry introduced a drug that can cure Hepatitis C in many patients. Last year, too, the first chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapies were approved, achieving amazing results in patients with aggressive leukemias or lymphomas that had resisted everything previously thrown at them. These are breakthroughs with life-or-death impact. As a society, we’ve come to expect from pharma steady progress against diseases our grandparents dreaded; the list of successes includes plague, tuberculosis, and pneumonia, all once commonplace and deadly even in otherwise healthy people. Vaccines alone save millions of lives each year.
Yet every so often I get flak from people I meet because I work in the pharmaceutical industry. While some surveys show the industry’s reputation is improving, it still suffers from a widespread lack of appreciation for the great work it does. Some question what we do in Medical Education.
I’d like to clear the air. So let’s focus for a moment on some of the good things that good people accomplish when they work in Medical Education on behalf of pharmaceutical companies.
- Med Ed professionals accelerate the spread of the important medical news. Great investigators and researchers uncover vital biomedical insights and create marvelous discoveries. Yet they’re often less skilled at communicating about these findings to others, especially rank-and-file clinicians and the general public. Effective communication is a different, and very important, competency.
Med Ed professionals bring a level of communication expertise that some, perhaps many, academics may lack. It’s not just the words they choose, the images they create, and the structure they bring to publications, slides, and multimedia.
The Med Ed skills also include savvy about how to accelerate, through strategic channel choices and timing, the dissemination of information. Without Med Ed people, innovations might languish. Think about how, in a different era, it took decades for Mendel’s revolutionary ideas about heredity to find their way into mainstream biological thinking, for example. Med Ed professionals accelerate awareness of scientific breakthroughs, and that’s an important contribution.
Think, too, of how many great scientists in medicine today speak and write English only as a second or third language.Med Ed professionals know these scientist’s fields well enough to understand what’s been discovered, and also command English so well that they can translate the ideas effectively and accurately.
- Med Ed professionals bring great clarity to complex ideas. Academics also tend to write for other academics, not for front-line medical practitioners at the patient’s bedside. Turning turgid academic prose into concise, practice-applicable language is an art at which Med Ed professionals excel.
They make it easy for busy doctors to know how, where, and when to use innovations with their patients, while freeing investigators from having to split their own scarce time between making new discoveries and explaining their previous ones. That’s honest work that’s good for medical progress.
- They foster collaboration and sharing of knowledge. One of the ideals of scientific research is to make new knowledge widely available. Yet post-docs who come to work in Med Ed have told me they often do so to escape the intense competition for academic recognition and funding that made their previous work in academic labs secretive and stressful.
Med Ed professionals are able to work with a wide variety of experts in multiple fields. They encourage open dialogue, through the advisory boards and investigator meetings they convene. Untethered to any one lab or institution’s proprietary point of view or self-interest, Med Ed people can help break down barriers and rivalries that keep scientists apart.
- Their work is transparent, public, and ethically reviewed. With the exception of a few widely-reported misdeeds, the pharmaceutical industry overall has a record of being among the most ethical and accountable of industries. doesn’t fake emission test results to meet regulatory standards, as auto makers have; it doesn’t target children to convince parents to buy sugary foods in grocery stores; pharma doesn’t suggest that people toss away money on government lotteries they have scarce chance of winning. As a whole, the industry is dedicated to the improvement of human lives.
Unlike just about any other industry, every message or initiative a Med Ed professional undertakes will be reviewed multiple times by other experienced medical experts, as well as regulatory experts and legal referees, before it ever sees publication or dissemination. Each statement will be assiduously referenced to authoritative sources and fact-checked. Med Ed is exquisitely accountable. The regulatory microscope we work under means that any Med Ed professional’s concerns or questions will be listened to and thoroughly addressed. In this field, individuals can have a tremendously positive impact as well as a clear conscience.
- Their work is globally informed and culturally relevant. The kinds of events that Med Ed professionals engage in—medical congresses, symposia, global ad boards, and similar others—provide frequent opportunities to travel and meet with other scientists. One result is that Med Ed people are advocates for diversity and appreciation of the role of culture and language in scientific and medical practice.
- The products they work on save peoples’ lives. No medication can cure a patient who hasn’t been prescribed it, and doctors won’t prescribe a drug until they know it and understand it well. Our job in Med Ed is to make sure that doctors do know and understand the strengths and limitations of products that can help them relieve pain, reverse illness, fend off disease, and save lives. Even the lives of the people who criticize the industry producing them.
No matter what less well-informed people may say these days, the people who work on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry have one main thing in common: They’re idealists. It does them, and medicine overall, a disservice when the industry in which they might accomplish great things is portrayed in a negative light. In Med Ed, we’re people who strive to change the world for the betterment of humankind, people whose dreams include helping to cure cancer, heal children, and bring comfort to those in distress. We may not be as saintly as Mother Teresa, but we’re good, humane, and ethical people doing important and necessary work.
And it feels good to do it.