Balancing it all: Medical Science Liaison and Digital Health
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
We connected on LinkedIn a while back and I’ve been seeing you pop up all over the place with your interest in Digital Health.
Tell us about yourself (school, where you work, etc) My name is Christy Cheung and I graduated from the University of British Columbia in 2019. I recently completed a Medical Affairs fellowship at Sanofi Genzyme, and I have since stayed on in the same team as a Medical Science Liaison in Neurology. Thank you for reaching out, it was so great connecting with you. It is always wonderful finding like-minded individuals, who are passionate about digital health and innovation, and come from a pharmacy, or healthcare, background.
You’re currently a Medical Science Liaison (MSL), can you share more about your role? Absolutely! Coming from a Medical Affairs fellowship, it was a very logical transition into the Medical Science Liaison, or MSL, position. I see MSLs as the medical face of the company. We typically cover certain regions or territories and specialize in a particular therapeutic area. Much of our role is to engage with key opinion/thought leaders, which in my case are neurologists, in scientific discussion. It is meant to be a two-way exchange. We will educate physicians on data on the molecules in our portfolio, the pipeline, and even venture into disease state topics. At the same time, we are looking to learn from our physicians, particularly from a clinical standpoint, as they are the ones seeing patients day-to-day. Beyond these scientific conversations, we often collaborate with physicians and other healthcare professionals in research initiatives, educational programs, and advisory boards.
What are some strengths you think you need to become a MSL? Communication and relationship-building skills are key. While it is important to have a strong scientific background to be able to present data, this can largely be taught. The soft skills, on the other hand, are much harder to coach. From my experience so far and in speaking with my mentors too, I would argue that the soft skills are even more important, and these are exactly what they look for in the interviews. Another aspect to keep in mind is that as an MSL, you are typically responsible for a certain geographic area, so the ability to work independently is essential. This means that time management, organization, and prioritization skills are also important.
What was fellowship like? Did your fellowship set you up for success for your current role? The fellowship was an invaluable experience. My team and organization are fairly lean, so from day one, I was thrown right into the deep end, but I think that that is the best way to learn. You learn fast and you grow quickly. And because of that, I think I was well prepared for my transition into the MSL role. In my fellowship, I had broad and diverse exposure of the inner workings of the pharmaceutical industry as well as those of the company. I was in close collaboration with my Medical Director, often providing support in various Medical Affairs-related projects. The ability to navigate the processes and operations of such projects from a head office perspective is critical, and I was fortunate to have learned much of that during my fellowship. Mind you, there was still a steep learning curve when I started as an MSL, and I am still learning!
Aside from your day job, I see that you love digital health! How did you come to love digital health? My curiosity and passion for digital health came from a healthcare hackathon that I spontaneously attended early in my pharmacy academic career. The event is called Hatching Health and it is hosted by the University of British Columbia each year. It is comprised of students and practitioners from healthcare, engineering, computer science, entrepreneurship, business, and design. We come together over a weekend, form teams, and create solutions for existing healthcare challenges. It was an eye-opening experience that made me realize that creativity and innovation are lacking in the healthcare industry. Not only do we need to put our heads together to brainstorm new ways of working, but we also need to engage colleagues from different industries such as those that were present at the hackathon. What I found was that these colleagues offered entirely different perspectives. They were thinking outside of the box and their ideas would lend to fresh conversations, and it is exactly those conversations that I wanted to keep having, which led me into the exciting and rapidly growing field of digital health.
Digital health is pretty general and entails a lot of different things. What are you most interested in? I agree, and the sub-fields within digital health are expanding. I am fairly open and at this point in my career, I genuinely want to learn about as much as I can in digital health. Having said that, I would say that I found myself dabbling in artificial intelligence and digital therapeutics early on in my research, so those are areas that I may be more familiar with.
How did you develop a personal brand and become known in the digital health space? It really naturally evolved into a personal brand as I became more invested in this space. As I began connecting with other pharmacists and healthcare professionals who also had an interest in digital health, I found that we all used LinkedIn as a medium to share stories and information. Then, a few years into my exploration of digital health, I decided to create a blog, Think Digital Health, to capture some of the research that I had been doing as well as to reflect on the conversations that I was having with like-minded digital health enthusiasts. All of this put together really became my personal brand and it has led to new friends and colleagues, project collaborations, and even speaking opportunities at conferences like DHX Virtual.
In your personal opinion and expertise, what are some digital trends or products we should look out for? That is a tough question! Digital trends in healthcare have been on the rise for a number of years now, which were only accelerated by COVID-19 this past year. I would say digital therapeutics and wearables are the latest buzz, but there is also voice technology and virtual reality. They are all at various stages of market penetration, but nonetheless, exciting to watch and follow along.
How do you balance your job and then what you do on the side with digital health? Both are areas that I am passionate about. The pharmaceutical industry is a complex environment and the digital health space, similarly so, but both aim to drive innovation and to improve health outcomes for patients, which very much align with my personal goals. When you find something that you are curious about learning, you naturally commit to developing yourself in that area, without it seeming like a chore. To your question more specifically though, I think it is essential to have a good work-life balance. While my initiatives in digital health are more so pet projects, it is still important to disconnect from those every now and then. I do so by pouring my energy and time into cooking, baking, reading, traveling, and seeing friends and family, all the other fun stuff!
What advice do you have for someone who’s looking to get into the digital health space? LinkedIn is a great platform for you to connect with individuals in digital health, to share your own projects and receive feedback, and it is a valuable resource for the latest news and articles in this space. Attend a few (virtual) conferences, especially now, during the pandemic, when many of them are offered for free. And if you want more resources, feel free to reach out to me, and hopefully I will be able to point you in the right direction.
In your professional opinion and your experience, how do you think digital health is affecting pharmacists or what roles will pharmacists play? Pharmacists are in a perfect position to take advantage of digital health. As we see digital health being marketed through various channels, with many of them being direct-to-consumer, patients may need support and guidance in learning about novel products and services. While we are seeing more clinicians working directly in these digital health companies, they are still few and far between. As front-line healthcare professionals, often described as most accessible to patients, pharmacists can certainly add digital health to their repertoire, to not only elevate their scope of practice, but also to demonstrate leadership.
Shout out to Christy for joining me! If you’re interested in connecting with her, you can find her on LinkedIn and her blog. Coming Soon: AI Collective (a website dedicated to artificial intelligence education for pharmacists)
Thanks for reading, as always!