Ever wonder where an MSL career may lead? Read on for my interview with Dr. Ann McPherson, PhD, Country Medical Lead for Rare Diseases at Takeda Canada.
Many years ago, before I became an MSL, I had a moment of hesitation as I noticed that the higher-level positions in medical affairs were held by people with MDs, not PhDs like myself. I was worried that my options would be limited. Years later, having been an MSL in the field and a Medical Advisor in the head office, I am immensely grateful for this career in medical affairs. I am still discovering what roles lie hidden in this space. For that reason, I took the time to speak with my good friend and fellow science enthusiast Dr. Ann McPherson about her current role in medical affairs and how her time as an MSL shapes her day-to-day work in a head office role.
Ann McPherson, who holds a PhD in immunology from the University of Toronto in Toronto, Canada, is an accomplished medical affairs professional. She has held several MSL positions – you can check out her LinkedIn profile to learn more about her story (linkedin.com/in/ann-m-1607168). Currently, she is Country Medical Lead in Rare Metabolic Disease at Takeda, a role she has held for the last two years. Ann describes this as a dual role of medical advisor and MSL manager. I was really interested in understanding why Ann chose this role and how her previous MSL roles shape and influence her work.
Ann started out as an MSL for rare diseases with Shire, now Takeda, in August of 2017 and held the position for two years. During that time, she fell in love with the rare disease space because the physicians are so passionate about delivering the best care for their patients. They go the extra mile, forming partnerships with Takeda and other industry members to better serve their patients living with rare diseases (where the unmet needs are huge). She forged meaningful connections with her customers and saw that she was delivering value, but as the sole MSL covering Canada’s vast geography, she (and her family) needed a break from the travel. When the opportunity to take on the new role arose, Ann jumped at it. These days, Ann works closely with the National MSL in the rare disease space as well as cross-functional colleagues in marketing, regulatory affairs, and sales. She considers her time as an MSL in the therapeutic area as a critical success factor in her current role. The experience provided her with an in-depth understanding of the customer – something she wouldn’t have had otherwise and would have been slower to develop without her time in the field. She also credits her MSL role for helping her identify a group of customers, rare disease nurses, who are instrumental in the management of these devastating conditions. Ann explained that those who haven’t spent time in the field getting to know the customers first-hand are sometimes quick to dismiss the importance of nurses in this space. She admits that it can be challenging at times to convince others, but including nurses in the medical strategy has helped deliver value and grow the company’s reputation in the rare disease space.
Another legacy of her time as an MSL is the connections she has with the thought leaders. The time and effort Ann spent getting to know the healthcare providers helped her develop a deep understanding of, and empathy for, the work they do. She is aware of the challenges they face and the hurdles they overcome to deliver the best care for their patients. When I asked her what it takes to do well in her current role, Ann explained that in order to succeed, she and her cross-functional colleagues need to work together, collaborate, and have open conversations about what needs to get done. Resources are limited and she often advocates for the physicians and patients. She emphasized that success hinges on empathy for her team members and for the customer. She also spoke about the value of the insights that MSLs bring from the field. Ann suggested that in order to understand what physicians are thinking, MSL managers – or anyone seeking to glean insights gathered by MSLs – might consider developing a series of engagement questions to capture information that might not naturally emerge from an unstructured conversation.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Ann has been able to re-engage with physicians and nurses to discuss the challenges they are facing, something she noted she will miss once in-person travel resumes and the frequency of these virtual engagements drops. Ann said these conversations are what fuels her and reminds her of why she chooses to work in this space. Despite missing some elements of the MSL role, she feels that as the Medical Lead, she is able to have a larger impact on the therapeutic area. She is in a position to work with her cross-functional stakeholders to allocate resources and decide which projects will get funded. The medical lead “ha[s] a voice,” in these discussions, whereas the MSL “wouldn’t be privy to those conversations [and] wouldn’t have the ability to share those first-hand experiences.” She describes this is a “missed opportunity” for the industry and one that is further exacerbated by added layers between MSLs and decision-makers.
I asked Ann to share advice for MSLs who are contemplating a move to a head-office role in medical affairs. She emphasized that MSLs should think carefully about whether they want the role and why. There are differences between head office- and field-based roles; each is accompanied by its own set of challenges and opportunities. In the office, you have a greater ability to make your voice heard. That being said, Ann stressed the importance of listening to others’ points of view and working collaboratively across several business functions. She said this doesn’t necessarily occur naturally and some handle it better than others. It is a skill that can be learned through practice. The key is to remember that “we’re all part of the same team. Your colleagues need to be aware of what you’re doing and vice versa.” Successful teams share insights and are not worried about trust.
When I invited Ann to reflect on one thing that she would change to further enhance the success of the business, she said she would prefer more communication between the head office and the MSLs. MSLs are uniquely positioned to have one-on-one customer meetings that drive business-critical insights. Capturing those medical exchanges needs to be prioritized. She proposed that those discussions should take place minimally once every two weeks and ideally once per week. MSLs bring a unique value to the organization – not capitalizing on their contribution is a missed opportunity.
In our last few minutes together, I asked Ann to share her thoughts on what great leadership in medical affairs looks like. She explained that the right person will understand the intricacies of the role in the context of the broader business functions. It is essential that the leader has empathy for what happens on the frontline and understands the value that the MSLs bring. She added that “to be an effective leader, you have to dismiss the ego. You have to accept that you don’t have all the answers, but you are there to learn.”
Reflecting on my conversation with Ann has strengthened my belief that empathy – towards the customer, towards our colleagues – is a cornerstone of success in our, and indeed, in any industry. The MSL Society held an informative webinar on this topic, which can be accessed here <<Navigating the Impact of COVID-19 to Ensure a Successful Product Launch (themsls.org)>> along with a summary I wrote <<The Importance of Emotional Intelligence for MSL/KOL Engagements. – MSL Society (themsls.org)>>. If it is true that we are not born with a set amount of empathy to doll out in our lifetime, but rather that it is a skill that can be learned and improved upon with practice, I would challenge the leaders and influencers who read this (should I be so lucky to have your attention) to question what success might look like if training and upskilling on empathy became one of the annual mandatory courses that your team needed to complete. What would you be willing to invest in empathy training if it meant that teamwork and customer engagement could soar through the roof, turnover could fall through the floor, and success could reach new heights? It is my sincerest hope that at least some of you will have the courage to find out. I know I would.
Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions expressed in this interview by Ann McPherson are hers and do not necessarily represent those of Takeda.
Darina Frieder, PhD BSc
Darina Frieder is an experienced Medical Affairs professional and is currently a Medical Science Liaison at UCB Pharma. She also runs her own medical writing business, Science Nerd for Hire. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband, 2 kids, and 1 temperamental cat. She is passionate about many things, a few of which are gardening, creating delicious meals for family and friends, and reading as many books as she can.