Communicating the science behind pharmaceuticals13/03/2014
Blair Hesp describes the journey from school science to establishing his own medical communications business.
How do you describe what you do?
I collaborate with overseas medical communications agencies to help international pharmaceutical companies to communicate their latest scientific data both within their own company and to the public.
Most people think this is limited to helping pharmaceutical companies write up their clinical trial results for publication or produce advertising materials for them, but I also develop materials to support internal scientific training and educational activities for healthcare professionals.
Sometimes, I even help perform competitor intelligence activities, such as reporting on all the latest data released at a big scientific conference. Basically, my job is take all the really complicated scientific data (both preclinical and clinical) generated by pharmaceutical companies and transform it into a format that is really easy to understand for absolutely anyone who is interested in new drugs, what they do and/or how safe they are.
Can you tell us about your career path?
When I first went to university, I intended to study medicine, but I missed out by just one mark in my health science first year at the University of Otago. This sent me down the path of studying pharmacology and toxicology.
I obtained a Bachelor of Science with Honours degree and then carried on to do a PhD in neuropharmacology.
Given the lack of academic science jobs in New Zealand, and the difficulty in obtaining a post-doctoral position overseas, I took up a trainee position at an intellectual property law firm and went back to university part-time to study law. I realised that law wasn’t really my thing after a few years, and so I dropped out and spent had a sabbatical in the Royal New Zealand Navy for 6 months (effectively full-time, after serving as a reservist for 6 years previously).
I then moved to Manchester in the UK in the middle of the Global Financial Crisis and struggled for three months before finally getting a job starting at the very bottom rung of the international medical communications agency ladder as an editorial assistant editing documents to suit journal styles, marking-up figures before sending them to be redrawn as slides and managing client databases.
From there, I quickly worked my way up into a senior medical writing position in London working on the global and European communications accounts for multinational pharmaceutical companies before coming home and setting up my own business, Kainic Medical Communications, exporting services back to the UK, and more recently, Asia.
What do you most like about working in science?
Every day I go to work and my job is to clearly and concisely communicate new developments in the treatment of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and HIV, and I need to make sure people understand what the data means and how it can be applied in clinical practice. While this is enjoyable when helping communicate data to doctors, there is nothing better than seeing the switch flick in the eyes of a patient, or their caregiver, when you realise that you have helped them understand how their treatment works and how it compares with other treatments. Many patients think that the science behind pharmaceuticals is too difficult for them to try and understand, but this should never be the case, and it is one of the things I really love about working in science.
What have been some big challenges you’ve faced?
One of the biggest challenges I have faced would be organising and running a conference in Denmark that was sponsored by a pharmaceutical company.
Because it was solely dedicated to the sponsor’s product, there were stringent local regulations that had to be followed, and we had to be very strict with the speakers to ensure they only talked about approved uses of drugs and cited peer-reviewed publications, not conference posters or unpublished data.
It was very difficult to find the right balance of freedom of speech for the doctors presenting and avoiding fines and a naming and shaming for our client if the rules were broken. The job involved working on our client’s presentations into the small hours of the morning the night before the meeting to incorporate last-minute feedback.
Starting up a medical communications company in New Zealand, where most bioscience companies are not used to outsourcing their communications activities, has also been challenging and has involved some 3am conference calls so I can speak simultaneously with clients in the US and UK.
What are you most proud of?
Being able to return to New Zealand and set up my own company exporting scientific services, and the company being successful enough that we could create a marketing campaign based on sponsoring an international travel scholarship for students at the University of Otago, and then subsequently receiving the 2013 New Zealand Innovators Award for the most innovative marketing and communications programme in the country for doing it!
Were you always interested in science at school?
I think I took every science subject available when I was at school, including physics, which I didn’t like as much as chemistry and biology. I even talked about wanting to be a scientist as a primary school student. I was really lucky, as a high school student at Christchurch Boys’ High, to be taught by two PhDs and a teacher who wrote the chemistry text book. They were very good at keeping a class of 30-plus teenage boys interested with practical experiments and tales of their own experience as science students and research scientists.
What would you like to do in the next five or ten years? How might your work change?
In five or ten years’ time, I’d like to still be doing what I’m doing but leading a bigger team of young New Zealanders who are interested in science and pharmaceuticals and are keen to demonstrate how good science education is in New Zealand compared with the rest of the world.
There are two ways in which my work will change: an increasing reliance on digital communication and social media and personalised medicine becoming more prevalent. Naturally, in communications we must evolve with the times to incorporate all kinds of new methods of communicating information into what we do. Already, the introduction of iPads has changed what I do as I must write content for apps on iPads, and you will see them on conference booths everywhere these days. However, most people will increasingly see personalised medicine entering their lives where their treatment will be heavily influenced by their genetics. This is already happening for many cancer treatments, but it is likely to spread into other diseases soon, too.