GSK’s John Wahba on the evolution of medical affairs - European Medical Journal

GSK’s John Wahba on the evolution of medical affairs

5 Mins
John Wahba, Medical Head of the Global Digital Hub, GSK, talks about how collaboration and teamwork will drive change in pharma, his views on digital and omnichannel optimisation and his passion for patient empowerment
Interview by Jade Williams

Everyone is different. Some like to wake up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and ease themselves into the morning with the dulcet tones of the radio, but John Wahba prefers a good old cup of tea before embarking on a morning jog a couple of times a week. He strives to energise himself before starting his day but admits that he doesn’t always have time for breakfast, instead taking to the usual social channels, news and emails before being thrust into a whole host of meetings.  

In his role at GSK, Wahba works across a span of countries and therapy areas in the company’s portfolio to support the execution of digital campaigns across various channels. Based in London, he is backed virtually by “a team of very hardworking and committed medics who work hand in hand with their commercial colleagues on campaign strategy and execution”, many of whom he is looking forward to meeting in person for the first time in the coming weeks. “There are people reporting to me that I haven’t met face to face yet,” he chuckles. “I’m sure they exist!” 

One of his favourite aspects of interacting with this team is through the surprising medium of disagreements. His reasoning is simple: “It means people are actively thinking and engaging and are providing a different perspective. The last thing you want is everyone simply saying ‘yes, yes we agree’.”  

The pursuit of innovation is another key drive for Wahba, and he describes it as “something that I adore, and something that I live for”. But he’s a firm believer in not just innovating for the sake of being innovative, rather making a difference and adding value to the customers and patients his function serves.  

What motivated your move from medicine to the pharmaceutical industry? 

After I qualified as a doctor, I secured a training position in obstetrics and gynaecology in London, and that is the field I am passionate about. I had always planned to pursue a career as a consultant in the field as it’s such a varied area.  

Then, during my training, I took time out to do some research and completed a PhD in CAR T-cell therapy, which back then was still quite novel and really, really exciting. A PhD gives you lots of transferable skills, and you learn to become independent and problem solve.  

It made me realise I had lots of skills I wasn’t going to be able to leverage in the NHS or as a medic if I went back to training, and I really wanted to see how else I could make a difference. One of the things that motivated me to go into medicine in the first place was the desire to help people, and, for me, a career in the pharma industry enables you to do that a thousand-fold. 

Are there any lessons that have stayed with you from your time as a doctor?  

The first is being appreciative of different people’s perspectives. In medicine, we work in multidisciplinary teams where you’ve got input from different subject matter experts and stakeholders, such as occupational therapists, physiotherapists, social workers and more. It’s important to appreciate, respect and listen to people because no one should ever profess to know everything.  

In pharma you are the advocate for the patient. You have to stand up for what’s right 

The second thing is thinking outside the box. As a medic on call, you’re faced with problems and sometimes there isn’t a straightforward answer, so you have to think outside the box to look for underlying issues – do I need to be doing special scans or measuring something special in the blood? As a medic in pharma, it’s important to be an enabler and be solutions oriented. It’s important to come up with solutions and say, ‘OK, well you can’t do it like this because of so and so, but how about this’.  

The third thing is about integrity and standing up for what’s right. Obviously, in medicine doctors must have high integrity of ethical standards and, similarly, in pharma you are the advocate for the patient. You have to stand up for what’s right. Sometimes you might become the most unpopular person in the room, and that’s OK, but it’s also important to learn how to compromise. 

Why is medical affairs lagging when it comes to achieving omnichannel optimisation?  

So, let me start by saying that I think medical has come a long way in such a short space of time when it comes to digital transformation and omnichannel. The pandemic accelerated the efforts on the medical side. But, yes, I do agree that medical is obviously slightly lagging behind.  

Commercial colleagues have been talking about omnichannel for some time now – it’s their bread and butter. But I think what’s important to recognise now is that medical expertise and medical insights are key to shaping omnichannel initiatives or strategies for organisations. That shouldn’t be siloed.  

Medical has to work very closely with commercial and other stakeholders to execute that plan. We need to start thinking about how these medical user journeys integrate with the commercial user journeys because, ultimately, you’re seeing the same customer, the same healthcare professional.  

Medical expertise and medical insights are key to shaping omnichannel initiatives or strategies for organisations 

Traditionally, medical has been brought in quite late when it comes to omnichannel, and usually that role has been based on the question of ‘can you approve this content? Or, can you approve this user journey?’. Medical needs to be sitting around the table during the planning stage and not be seen as content approvers.  

One of our unique selling points is all the great insights we’re providing, which are generated from a variety of sources and can help shape omnichannel strategy. Ultimately, omnichannel is a team sport and medical is a key player.  

How can MSL teams truly embrace digital?  

Digital has now become a way of life. It’s no longer a commodity or something we just add into our plans, we are all engaging digitally. Everyone is doing digital, and it’s now about ensuring that there’s thought behind the process.  

I truly believe our MSL teams can be orchestrating this omnichannel piece. They are best placed to engage with HCPs and the key opinion leaders – they know them very well and they understand when the best time to contact them is, who the best connections are, and so on. So, it’s important to note that we’re not giving the MSL any more work or something new – they’re already doing this – but we’re giving them tools to enable them to do this more effectively and more efficiently.  

What’s important is we need their input into making sure those tools are fit for purpose. We don’t want to be developing something at the global level, with no input from our MSLs. It’s important to get their input early on and to co-create and collaborate with them, and that also helps MSLs hold some accountability so they feel part of the process and they feel like they’ve contributed to this development. Ultimately, you want to produce something that helps them achieve their goals. 

In what ways do you think medical affairs will evolve over the coming years?  

Medical affairs will always have a valuable role of bringing in insights and holding key relationships with HCPs and digital opinion leaders to support and inform organisational strategy and activities. We are already contributing to real-world evidence generation, which is a key pillar of evidence we communicate to HCPs, and that’s going to increase as HCPs want to see how a drug is actually performing in real life and in a typical patient that they see.  

In addition, medical affairs will play a bigger role in helping bring a better understanding of what the unmet needs are in this area and where the data gap is, as well as contributing to its generation. 

Ultimately, omnichannel is a team sport and medical is a key player 

Another big focus will be on patients. We talk a lot about HCPs, but patients are also key. Medical has a big role in educating patients and ensuring they get access to the relevant data. It’s about working with patients and patient groups and educating them about what this complex data means, about their disease and also looking to see how we can optimise that patient-HCP relationship and ensure the patient is empowered and supported throughout their journey.  

How do you successfully balance both your work and personal lives?  

What a question! I have to ask myself: am I actually balancing it? Probably not. But, I enjoy travelling, I love watching and playing tennis, and for me it’s about trying to find the root of the boundaries between work and a social life. So, by 6pm or 7pm, I try to finish work, and try not to look at my phone.  

On weekends I try not to do work either, but sometimes you do have to work late or at weekends because the business needs you. It’s important to make sure that you take time to recover, relax and enjoy yourself. I also encourage my teams not to work when they’re away, too, unless it’s very urgent – their time off is protected. If you’re burned out, you’re no use to anyone, so it’s important to take that time and use it for yourself. 

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