ANALYTICAL SKILLS, CLINICAL knowledge, and managerial experience all have a place in pharmacy outside the retail setting and outside a clinical practice. That place is research, one of the most vital components of pharmacy. Developing the products that could possibly be widely prescribed to improve the health care of millions of people may be one of the most rewarding ways to approach a pharmacy career.
As an oncology research pharmacist, Jeannette Wick, RPh, MBA, FASCP, manages a portfolio of investigational agents for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Her portfolio of oncology drugs offers a great deal of promise to cancer research. Until recently, she says, pharmacy has not been interested in developing antineoplastic drugs because, she says, "there was this belief that cancer would kill you." The hard work of developing these drugs and getting them to the clinicians and patients who need them has changed that perception.
In her work with the NIH, Wick partners with drug companies to review every protocol using agents in her portfolio. She reviews the dosing and eligibility criteria, and she fields calls from sites in the United States and other countries, answering questions about storage, etc. Although Wick has spent her career working for the government, this position is not just available within the federal system. "There are 10 of us that do this work for the NIH, but almost every drug company in the country hires a pharmacist to do this job."
A SOLID FOUNDATION
Most people do not become oncology research pharmacists right out of pharmacy school, explains Wick. A pharmacist arrives at the position with some clinical experience and, hopefully, a little management experience as well. "You need good inventory skills, good language skillsit is essential that the protocol is clear," says Wick. It also helps to have published work. Once in this job series, she says, pharmacists may later choose to leave and work for drug companies or other government agencies that require clinical administrative skills. While most oncology research pharmacists come to the NIH from an oncology clinical practice, Wick had other skills and experience that made her a good fit for the job. She started as a commissioned officer for the US Public Health Service where she worked in psychiatry at one of the nation's largest psychiatric facilities. Her ability to peer review a document, critique it constructively, and her inventory control skills earned her the position at NIH.
Oncology research pharmacists must have a good understanding of the overall NIH policies and requirements, and they must know how to use the specific databases that manage protocols and drug supply, making sure there is an appropriate quantity of drugs for distribution throughout the life cycle of the drug.
The position is training-intensive and entirely different from clinical pharmacy. Because they are dealing with investigational drugs, research pharmacists must be able to develop good safety profiles and reviews of adverse events. A good candidate for this type of job must be meticulous, detail-oriented, careful, and safety-conscious. Documentation is absolutely crucial, says Wick, and researching skills are paramount. "You need to know how to research, get on the Internet, check Medline, check standard references, and check press releases to cover every base."
Like so many other careers in pharmacy, there is no typical day. Work days are incredibly busy and fraught with problems, says Wick. "Mondays and Fridays are very busy. Mondays, people have questions from over the weekend, like, ‘My refrigerator broke, how do I store this medication?'Friday comes along, and people are calling wanting to know where their delivery is. I am constantly on the phone with pharmaceutical representatives, busy clinicians, nurses with questions, patients.... You must have excellent people skills."
Wick says she gets the most job satisfaction from distributing information. In addition to her other responsibilities, Wick prepares a quarterly newsletter that goes out to clinicians and investigators, pharmacists, and nurses. "I try to keep it light and entertaining. They don't have a lot of time to read it, so I keep the information to short blurbs."
In the research field, patience is a virtue. The process can be slow and frustrating, says Wick, but "it's a really good feeling when one of your agents graduates to FDA approval. It can take anywhere from 3 to 20 years. Some have gone through fairly quickly. You may start out in one indication and then find another. In oncology,we have had unprecedented success.We understand cancer at the cellular level better than we used to.Because of that,we can create therapies that are more effective and are oral, as opposed to infusions or parenterals. There is a lot going on. This is a growth field."
Ms. Farley is a freelance medical writer based in Wakefield, RI.