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Why medical affairs has a role to play in climate, health and equity.


Why did you join a pharmaceutical company? Was it to escape the pressures of the front lines of the healthcare system, or was it because you believed that you could make a difference?

I remember writing an article in BMJ careers around the time I switched careers from clinician academic to MSL. I fiercely justified the choice I made, confident that I could act as the ethical voice for the organisation and impact public health at scale for the rest of my career.

Over a decade later, I realised that I had failed utterly in my mission. I had been caught up in organisational politics, commercial strategies and business acronyms. I talked about patient centricity, but did not really know what that meant. I had the posture of a medical leader, but I usually did what I was told. I believed I had the power to change things, but spent a lot of time agreeing with people around me.

Yet as medical affairs leaders, we do have far more power than we give ourselves credit for. Through our wide network of established relationships we can influence not only the pharmaceutical company itself, but also the wider healthcare system. So why don't we?

Right now there are two huge movements happening in healthcare. One is the process of system wide decarbonisation, within the healthcare sector itself and across the pharmaceutical industry. Every unit of carbon saved also improves public health globally, especially for the world’s most vulnerable communities and neighbourhoods. The other is an increasing focus on health equity. Medical affairs naturally sit at the intersection of both of these movements and are well positioned to create huge system wide impact.

So what is stopping us? Have we got lost in business bureaucracy? Or are we still holding true to our original purpose?

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Updated: Jun 2, 2023

A new paradigm in modern healthcare is emerging. A paradigm in which a healthy planet is emphasised as an essential cornerstone for healthy people.

The pharmaceutical industry is already embracing the shift in focus from treatment of disease to promotion of health. However, a growing movement known as planetary health or "healthy planet, healthy people", challenges assumptions about what health promotion means, and places strong emphasis on the fundamental basics of a healthy environment.

One practical implication of this trend is that pharmaceutical companies with a vision to improve human health must develop an integrated strategy in climate and health. Carbon emissions that the industry releases are contributing to global warming, which in turn is directly and indirectly adversely impacting human health. The world’s leading expert scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) state with high confidence that "climate change and related extreme weather events will significantly increase ill health and premature deaths from the near to the long-term."

The health co-benefits of climate action are well evidenced and according to the World Health Organisation offer strong arguments for transformative change. However, climate strategies and activities within pharmaceutical companies remain focused within corporate sustainability, publicly disclosed through ESG reports.

Despite the urgency for the health sector to stop releasing carbon and prepare vulnerable communities to be resilient to climate-related health impacts, core business functions such as medical affairs are not yet being systematically engaged. Companies are therefore not fully realising the business opportunity to tackle the climate crisis and improve health outcomes for patients and the planet.

The opportunity for medical affairs agency goes beyond important but small scale individual actions, such as recycling plastic or eating vegan. Established medical affairs knowledge, skills and capabilities within evidence generation, medical education, patient centricity, digital healthcare and health equity can be applied to the challenge of climate change in ways that will transform patient care and realise business opportunity.

You can read more about the why medical affairs can play a key role in climate and health and explore practical actions in our new report which can be downloaded here

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