What is pharmaceutical medicine?

As well as the discovery and development of medications, pharmaceutical medicine specialists play an essential role in marketing medicines, which includes plenty of number crunching and data analysis. This usually involves demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of new drugs compared to old medications or outdated types of treatment. For example, in 2013, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer generated $4.6 billion from sales of Lyrica, a medicine used to treat epilepsy, neuropathic pain, fibromyalgia, restless leg syndrome, and generalized anxiety disorder. One of their biggest customers was the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), which purchased the drug at £6 per dose. Given the amount they were buying, the initial costs would have been significant. However, if that  £6 dose reduces epileptic seizures, then patients are less likely to need additional treatment or consultations throughout their lifetime. In other words, it is a way of spending today to save for tomorrow. And for cash-strapped public services like the NHS, these long-term budgeting plans are crucial to providing an effective service over the next few generations. 

Job specifications for pharmaceutical physicians vary depending on who they work for. But broadly speaking, there are three main areas which all focus on a specific aspect of developing and distributing medicine -- clinical pharmacology, clinical research, and medical affairs. On a day-to-day basis, physicians could find themselves screening candidates for clinical trials, supervising lab tests, overseeing marketing campaigns, or attending conferences on new regulatory practices. 

How to get into pharmaceutical medicine

Pharmaceutical medicine is a highly competitive field. Like any medical career, it tends to attract the brightest and most dedicated graduates who are driven by a desire to help improve the lives of patients and make a significant contribution to their local community. 

If this sounds like a field for you, then the first thing you will need is an excellent high school education with top marks in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and English. Then it's time for medical school. This takes around four years, and it certainly won't be easy. Aside from being able to digest a vast amount of information and pass all your exams, you will also need to complete some challenging placements in a hospital or another medical setting. And once you've graduated from medical school, there is more hard work to be done! People interested in working in pharmaceutical medicine will typically need to complete a postgraduate course or a specific work-based training program that takes another two to three years to complete. Then, finally, after almost a decade of training and personal development, you can call yourself a fully qualified pharmaceutical physician. 

What does it take to become a pharmaceutical physician

Many people are smart enough to become doctors, but what really separates those who do has got little to do with 'intelligence'. The most successful medical students are usually the most committed; the ones most likely to make short-term sacrifices to reach their long-term objective. This requires focus, confidence, passion, a strong work ethic, and the willingness to commit to every situation and opportunity.

Pharmaceutical medicine is not generally a patient-facing profession, but you will still need all those soft-skills associated with patient care. Developing medicines is a collaborative effort, and no matter where you work along the chain, you will need to consult with many different people on an almost daily basis. As such, you'll need strong listening skills, empathy, and the ability to communicate your own ideas effectively within group settings. 

Finally, pharmaceutical physicians require incredible attention to detail, a logical and organized approach to problem-solving, and a strong sense of moral integrity. Given the nature of the research, physicians must always adhere to strict pharmaceutical legal and regulatory framework and always stay in line with ethical and professional codes of practice. The importance of these cannot be overstated. From the ethics of selecting the right test patients to how a company advertises their new products, these regulatory frameworks must shape and guide every stage in the development of new drugs. Any breaches in trust can result in huge fines, criminal convictions, and may well put patients lives at risk.

Career choices

If you're looking to build a long and successful medical career that's as future proof as you can get, then pharmaceutical medicine is one of the best options on the table. With, as mentioned before, the global pharma industry worth an estimated $1,204 billion last year, there will be plenty of opportunities for medical graduates over the next few years. 

Qualified graduates have a wide range of well-paying job options. If you love working in the lab running experiments and testing out your theories, you could build a career as a research scientist, biochemist, or microbiologist. These specialists identify the molecules or structures that can create new medicines or improve existing drugs. They also design what's known as 'packaging', the complex process that binds molecules and chemicals together. 

More technically minded people may also enjoy roles in production and manufacturing, where they can design and maintain the machines and equipment used in the testing and production of medicine. Other more hands-on roles include quality control analyst, quality engineer, and documentation controller.

Entry-level salaries for scientists and quality assurance operatives start at around $27,000, but it won't be too long before you have a chance to earn significantly more. Pharmaceutical engineers are among the highest paying professions in the pharma industry. They command an average salary of $96,580 per year.

But if you have done your time in the lab and have your sights set on the boardroom, then there are plenty of opportunities in sales and marketing, research and development, public relations, finance, and business development. Again, these are all well-paid jobs with significant additional earning potential. And if you make it to the dizzying heights of the top executives, you could make millions. Leonard S. Schleifer is the founder and chief executive of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. At the end of the 2014 tax year, Schleifer reported an income of $41,965,424 and is now believed to be worth around $1.79 billion!

A rewarding career

After working in obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, pediatrics, Dr Rebecca Curtis started looking into roles outside of traditional medical environments. This was something she'd thought about as a student, but she was also looking for a career with more sociable hours. Dr. Curtis looked into occupational medicine, public health medicine, and informatics before finally opting for pharmaceutical medicine. She was attracted to the variety of career choices, travel opportunities, and a culture of innovation. Dr Curtis is now the medical director of Nycomed UK and is absolutely convinced she made the right decision. When asked what she loves about the industry, she said, "It's great to have your ideas heard and to gain a breadth of experience across different fields. There are also opportunities for travel and a wide choice of careers within the industry. The job is never the same day to day."

She also has some words of advice for anyone thinking about a career in pharmaceutical medicine. "The pharmaceutical industry these days is always morphing," said Curtis. "Companies merging and restructuring as well as companies having to adapt to changes within the NHS or a product failing in late-stage development. Therefore, roles don't tend to stay the same for very long. Do not join this industry if you are averse to change!" 

And as a managing director, Dr Curtis echoes many of the qualities that companies look for in potential employees. She said, "I would like to see hard workers [...] people who relish autonomy and the chance to make their own decisions, those who see solutions rather than problems, and those who are consistently meticulous."

If this sounds like you, then perhaps it is time to take the next (or perhaps your very first) steps toward a lucrative and rewarding career in pharmaceutical medicine.