Over the past 10 to 15 years, we have seen a tremendous shift in the number of pharmacists turning to the pharmaceutical industry sector (pharma) to explore new career paths. One path, in particular, that has grown over 300% in the past decade is medical affairs. Medical affairs is a function within the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries that employs medical and scientific professionals.
What is medical affairs?
It is concerned mainly with data dissemination and generation. Traditionally, this function includes roles such as medical information specialists, medical science liaisons, and medical directors. In particular, the medical science liaison role (MSL) is one of the most sought after roles. Industry estimates are that there are over 200 applicants on average apply for a single MSL opening. An effective medical affairs professional needs to have strong scientific and critical thinking skills. Things like the ability to interpret and present complex disease states, understanding clinical trial design, medical writing and understanding how to best interact with thought leader scientists and physicians are critical to long term success.
In addition, medical affairs professionals need to have a strong understanding of health care systems, their structures and the important players involves. For instance, one area in particular that is growing in importance due to an increased focus on drug pricing is health economics outcomes research (HEOR) which deals with pharmacoeconomics.
One of the primary growth drivers in medical affairs has been the shift to specialty and rare disease/orphan drug development. Increasingly greater scientific complexity of drugs’ mechanism of action and more sophisticated clinical trials designs has placed higher demands on pharma to educate and communicate information in a sophisticated and more in depth manner. This makes MD, PhD, and PharmD professionals great candidates for these types of roles given their training and background.
In the past, the majority of folks in pharma on the medical side were PharmDs. However, an increasing number of MD and PhD candidates are flocking to these roles, creating an interesting competitive race to land one of these coveted positions. With the increase in ‘for profit’ colleges and universities offering PhD, MD, and PharmD degrees, there has been a significant surge in the number of scientific professionals in the United States.
The result has been an imbalance in supply and demand. In addition, as the health care landscape evolves, more and more health care providers such as pharmacists and doctors find themselves flocking to pharma to leave behind similar issues they never dreamt of dealing with when they were excited medical school students.
So how do you prepare for a role in pharma within medical affairs?
Some colleges of pharmacy have fairly strong fellowship programs focused in medical affairs specifically, such as the University of Southern California’s School of Pharmacy’s medical affairs fellowship program. However, most candidates have to learn on the job; until now, that is. The Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs (medicalaffairsspecialist.org) has developed the only comprehensive program for individuals interested in a serious medical affairs career.
Becoming Board Certified in Medical Affairs
The ACMA offers a Board Certified Medical Affairs Specialist (BCMAS) program to individuals with an MD, a PharmD, or a PhD. Additionally, students enrolled in an accredited doctoral program may also be eligible but can only use the professional designation in their title upon graduation. The BCMAS program covers 20 different topics in medical affairs, including medical devices, diagnostics, and health economics outcomes research. It is an online, self-paced program with a final exam (also taken online).
As drug development shifts to more specialty and rare disease areas, study of the underlying pathobiology and science will continue to evolve in complexity, thus requiring individuals with advanced scientific and clinical backgrounds to educate physicians on drugs’ clinical data. As a result, we will continue to see an ongoing increase in medical affairs and higher demand for more MD, PharmD, and PhD candidates at the forefront of educating health care providers around the world.