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A day in the life of a pharmaceutical physician

Is there a typical day for a doctor working in pharmaceutical medicine? Paul Robinson, Executive Director, Patient Perspective at Merck Sharp and Dohme suggests there’s no such thing.

I was asked to speak at a joint ABPI/RSM symposium themed A day in the life of a pharmaceutical physician. But the more I thought about my own career, the more I realised that describing a typical day was going to be an impossible task.

Pharmaceutical medicine is such a broad specialty that the concept of a ‘typical day’ doesn’t really exist. Indeed this is all part of the appeal. For many, the challenge of becoming either a consultant or a GP is a huge landmark, but after that life becomes fairly predictable – surgery, catheter list, out-patients, audit days, labour ward, and so it goes.

Pharmaceutical medicine on the other hand embraces emerging science, clinical trials, benefit-risk judgements, man-management, project management, ethics committees, reimbursement committees, promotional challenges and more (but ideally not all in the same day).

For me, the attraction is clear and simple – developing new medicines for the benefit of patients. I am pushed to think of more than one or two specialties in medicine that do not rely on medicines in some way or another. Playing just a small part in that development process is hugely satisfying.

In my career so far, I have had the privilege of seeing great progress that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I qualified. I witnessed the real hope of being able to cure patients of hepatitis C (hepatitis C hadn’t even been discovered when I qualified), the potential to prevent cervical cancer with a vaccine and the increasing use of the body’s own immune system to treat cancer.

My advice: qualify in medicine first

At the symposium, we had a mixture of medical students and doctors in the first few years of their careers. I think it is important for people to want to have a career in pharmaceutical medicine, rather than simply be running away from a clinical career. So my advice is always the same – no matter how sure you are, qualify in medicine, do your foundation years and get fully registered.

Ideally, head towards membership of one of the Royal Colleges; that provides credibility and acts as an insurance policy should you want to return to clinical medicine, although in my experience, very few do. Look for opportunities to develop your non-clinical skills – that might be commercial, research, scientific, management or communications – something that says you are more than ‘just MBBS’.

Medical adviser vs clinical research

First jobs in pharmaceutical medicine are usually in either medical affairs or clinical research. The former is very much the medical face of the company to the NHS. You are likely to be medical adviser in a specific therapy area, working with the commercial teams to portray the products accurately and encourage rational use, always with an eye on safety. You may explore research ideas that academics have or help run post-launch clinical trials. Providing answers to questions that clinicians have, representing your company and attending medical conferences help fill your time.

Clinical research, on the other hand, focuses more on the medicines in development, some of which will prove useful, others not, but always with a focus on scientific rigour and safety.

Judged by your contribution

Choosing pharmaceutical medicine is no easy option, but can be hugely satisfying and rewarding. You will need to work in a cross-functional team of extremely bright colleagues, some of whom will understand the science better that you, even though they are non-scientists. You will be judged by you contribution, not by your title. And your career trajectory will not be linear. Only in the NHS and the military do you have a clear career path laid out for you at the start of your journey.

In pharmaceutical medicine, you need to be open to acquiring a variety of skills, in a variety of roles, probably in a variety of companies in a variety of countries too. For me that word “variety” sums up pharmaceutical medicine.

The ABPI/RSM symposium was exciting, attracting some delegates who were just curious about pharmaceutical medicine because they had never heard the phrase, and others already demonstrating clear qualities for a successful career. I hope one day to meet some of those medical students and junior doctors again, as their careers in pharmaceutical medicine help us provide even better medicines for patients.


For more information about the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry visit

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