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A Day in the Life of Pharmaceutical Medical Affairs: Meet Kathleen Hawker, MD

Published on: Jan 21, 2020


What happens when you ask a busy neurologist to keep a journal for two weeks, cataloging her work activities and daily routines? Well, if the doctor you’ve chosen for this experiment is a pharmaceutical executive like Kathleen Hawker, you’re likely to get a peek inside a whirlwind of travel and meetings, with the journals hand-written on the airplane seat tray in-flight. That’s because Hawker is in the air almost as much as she is on the ground—170,000 air miles last year alone—with travel
scheduled up to twice weekly. As she notes, “That’s partly because I work remotely and I fly into the office. And part of it is just the nature of the job, with travel all over the United States. Occasionally, there will be meetings in Europe or Canada, so I’m on the road a lot. I’d say that’s the case with most people in this position.”

Hawker wasn’t always a pharma doc; like most physicians who work in the industry, she started her career in the field, working as a neurologist, researcher, and associate professor of neurology (at Ohio State University), always with a particular emphasis on her specialty in MS. Her career path took an
unexpected pivot on a routine commute between her home and Ohio State University when she suffered a retinal detachment.

Although her recovery went well, the resulting change in vision eliminated night driving as a travel option—virtually eliminating her work life as well. She switched to serving pharmaceutical companies in 2009 and hasn’t looked back, working at both Eli Lilly and Novartis before accepting her current role last year with EMD Serono as vice president of neurology and immunology for the United States.



While Hawker’s work in the pharmaceutical industry has included development and pre-clinical roles, she’s currently on the medical affairs side of the house—which means she’s using the breadth of her background to support health care providers and their patients using the drugs made by EMD Serono, most specifically Rebif. As she explains, “We look at the drug after it’s been introduced on the market. What happens as people use it over a long period of time?” Even in her relatively short tenure in pharma, Hawker says she has seen changes in the business. One of those shifts has happened as a result of social media and the availability of medical information online. “It used to be in medical affairs that you’d be educating the doctors, “she notes. “Now there’s a huge push to educate the patients about their disease and treatment.”

Another shift is underway in what medical affairs can do for providers, particularly in the area of data. “Because of computer and digital advances, there are some very big databases coming from hospitals and academic centers,” Hawker says. “Electronic medical records have expanded as well. There’s a lot more information for practitioners today than there was even last year.” 

As part of providing these services to practitioners and patients, medical affairs funds education programs through grants for nurses and advocacy groups and others. They also provide more customized services such as looking up specific data for individual providers so they can treat their patients, or analyzing net costs of the drug.



Although Hawker has supervised larger teams in other positions, her eight direct reports keep her plenty busy. Her team members are called medical science liaisons, or MSLs, and they work as a unit to support providers and patients of Rebif across the country. In her position, Hawker assists and advises her MSLs, attends major meetings in the field such as AAN’s Annual Meeting in April, works with the company’s global division, hosts centralized team trainings, and maintains the connection to the development side of the equation to ensure the voice of health providers is included in the development of the drug. 



One thing Hawker learned when keeping her journal for this article is that there really aren’t any typical days in her world. That said, there are certainly constants and email is one of them. “I check on email all day long,” she says. “Usually I start the day with email before my flight, even if it’s 6:30 in the morning. That’s particularly true since Global is six hours ahead of us and there’s usually a flood of emails waiting for me. I end the day that way too, to keep up with the west coast.” Once on the plane, Hawker pops down the seat tray and gets to work. “You’ll notice in pharma that everyone carries a giant book to jot things down,” she says. “That’s because we’re constantly traveling or in meetings.” In the course of her journaling, she says some of her notes were to plan a major meeting she’s responsible for, and some were just part of her daily business. She also captured thoughts about new ways of educating Rebif users and improvements to suggest for her team when communicating with patients and health care providers. Once the plane lands, Hawker is off and running again. In this two-week period, that meant giving talks on one side of the country and attending publication meetings on the other coast, where she conferred to ensure information going out was correct and understandable; she considers it part of her job to read all publications going out to health care providers, to vouch for accuracy and relevance. Eventually she boards the last plane of the week to head back home to Cincinnati, giving her a chance to check email one last time before recharging her batteries for the new week ahead.