• Christy Cheung

Invent Your Career Path: Canadian Perspectives

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Many of you have reached out to ask how you might learn more about healthcare innovation, particularly, what role a pharmacy student and/or pharmacist can have in this area. Digital health is a rapidly evolving field, and public perception, too, is evolving with it. Some remain skeptics, cautious, while others see only untapped potential. We have recently seen a number of emergency authorizations by regulatory bodies, many of which are related to COVID-19 such as diagnostic tools or Ecko’s ECG-based algorithm for detecting heart failure (a likely comorbidity of the COVID-19). In parallel, we are seeing a growth of FDA approvals of digital therapeutics. Separated by a few days, there was MedRhythms’ digital therapeutic for treating chronic stroke walking deficits, receiving breakthrough device designation, and Akili’s digital therapeutic, “EndeavorRx (AKL-T01),” for children ages 8-12 years old with primarily inattentive or combined-type ADHD, receiving FDA clearance based on their pivotal STARS-ADHD trial. Outside of North America, Pear Therapeutic’s reSET for treating substance use disorder in adults received approval by the Health Science Authority of Singapore. And Big Health and Kaia Health reached funding milestones for Series B. We are clearly seeing great strides in digital therapeutics, virtual care, and Telehealth among others, building momentum that we must capitalize on both during the pandemic and as we come out of it.

To my pharmacy colleagues, the digital health field, overall, is ripe for pharmacy involvement! The latest news I shared above hopefully convinces you of that, but I am not here to tell you that there are open positions in the digital health space, being marketed specifically for pharmacy students and pharmacists. To make our way there, we may have to consider some unconventional steps and create our own journey.

In this post, I wanted to add some thoughts for my fellow Canadian peers, specifically, and speak to a few options for non-traditional career paths (or stepping stones). It is not surprising that we are somewhat behind our colleagues south of the border, but that is not to say that we cannot champion digital health in our own country. Throughout my journey into digital health so far, I have met a community of innovators and enthusiasts, who wants to push the bar higher in terms of healthcare innovation. The Canadian environment provides support and resources in the form of advising, education, and training, much of which is subsidized by the government or public institutions, so there is no shortage of learning opportunities here. For startups and/or small business, in particular, there are Ontario's Regional Innovation Centres (RICs) and Joule's Innovation Grant. For larger corporations looking to hire young talent, there are the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), which also provides financial support to the business itself, and the MITACS Program, which offers funding for collaborations between industry and academic institutions (As a post-secondary student or new graduate, you could look to explore traditionally unpaid opportunities, but offer the hiring manager the above resources, so that you may be able to receive a stipend for your work and contribution). And finally, for a more comprehensive list of federal and provincial/territorial initiatives, the Government of Canada has published an Innovative Solutions Canada page.

Now, back to you! What can you do to get started?

From the Canadian colleagues whom I have spoken to, many acknowledge that continuing your clinical practice is valuable, but it depends on where you want to go. If you are interested in clinical informatics, there are opportunities for pharmacists in this space, particularly in the larger health systems/authorities. This may involve working with hospital systems, building reports and drug order sets, or streamlining processes for clinicians. The workflow in one department, for example, ICU, could very well differ from that of the paediatrics ward, and so, before you can make decisions at the systems level, you would have to understand the day-to-day of a clinician. Having clinical experience under your belt, then, helps you understand the needs of the various clinicians across the entire institution. In other words, it gives you context with which you can apply to your informatics role. In Canada, there are no formal informatics residencies, but I would encourage you to find ways to learn about the informatics piece, especially if you are pursuing a hospital residency. Pharmacists are well-trained to understand clinical data and the medication use process, and despite the lack of progress for pharmacy informatics in both academic and hospital institutions, there is a growing need for individuals who can effect system-wide operational changes. On top of that, such skillsets are transferable to the digital health space. As I have often touched on in previous blog posts, a persistent challenge in the consumer-centered space is the lack of interoperability, integration, and communication with data management systems housed in other organizations. With informatics, you would gain perspectives for how health systems operate, which are extremely valuable for digital health.

Coming from an industrial fellowship/residency myself, I believe this could be another avenue to learn more about healthcare innovation. In the biopharmaceuticals industry, you may often find yourself in a highly structured organization, working with diverse teams; you share a common goal of bringing innovative medicines to patients across the globe, but one brings in a medical perspective, one looks at commercialization of said product, while another yet, strategies for market access and reimbursement. While the startup space is faster-paced, and perhaps, perceived to be more innovative, disruptive, and technology-oriented, Pharma is starting to pick up pace and is actively putting efforts into innovation. Getting exposure in Pharma gives you insight into what is needed to develop solutions for the masses and you learn to do this within a regulated environment, which, although might make it more challenging, will give you the skills to pitch your ideas, make reiterations to your projects, get feedback from multiple internal and external stakeholders, and ultimately, present your solution to ascending levels of management and leadership. If you want to channel your ambition to drive change within an enormous industry, perhaps consider this one.

How about startups? The glorified career path that has attracted so many individuals seems glamorous, but it is a tough journey that only people who have walked it would understand. As pharmacists, we have a solid foundation of clinical training and medication expertise, and beyond that, we have unique skillsets ranging from attention to detail and the ability to multitask, to familiarity with data and trends, which make us value-add team members in the health technology space. I have always boasted that pharmacy is a versatile profession. In a time like now, pharmacy students and pharmacists should be thinking about the non-traditional career paths, or at the very least, pursuing some 'side hustles' to complement their practice. While it may be difficult to find a full-time position in a startup, you can look to do projects with these groups. In my experience, many are very open to having a clinician on board to provide those patient perspectives as they continue to develop and refine their product or service. I would encourage you to look at local incubators, innovation hubs, or technology-focused institutions to start your search. In BC, you have the Health and Technology District Innovation Hub. In Ontario, you have the MARS Innovation Boulevard. In Quebec, you have the MILA, the artificial intelligence institute. These are only a handful of examples within Canada, but hopefully it is a good starting point for you. Lastly, I will point you to a resource, the Startup Genome, which is an innovation research firm that has compiled profiles of various leading startup ecosystems across the globe, including Toronto-Waterloo and Montreal.

All that said. whichever route piques your interest, take a plunge and give it a try. You never know what that might lead to in the short- and long-term. The last piece of advice I would give to you all is to network and build relationships with potential mentors. The greatest learnings I have come across, personally, are from my conversations with passionate thought leaders. Find someone who shares your curiosity and let the dialogues begin.

Thanks for reading, as always!

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