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Thanks for giving a country kid a go

Posted on May 14, 2020

30 years ago, today, on the 14th May 1990, a friend dropped me off at the security gate of Sigma Pharmaceuticals, a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in Clayton, Melbourne.  It was my first day on the job.  I was a Medical Representative! 

I am not sure I if I was more thrilled to have a job in the pharmaceutical industry (just having a full time job was exciting given the economic climate of the time) or that I was going to be driving home in a new car (ok, it was the car – a brand new Holden Commodore!)

I had learnt about the Medical Representative role in my final year at university during a lecture.  The pharmacology department invited alumni to address final year students and tell us about the sort of jobs that might be available after we graduated.  I had also encountered a very experienced ‘medical rep’, whilst working in my part time job at a swimming pool shop in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.  His name was Wally Dower and he worked for Astra.  I was very impressed with Wally because he drove a European car – a Volvo.  Wally said that Astra employees drove Volvos because of ‘a special relationship between two leading Swedish companies’.  I thought Astra must be a very impressive company! 

Wally’s job came to my attention when I was loading containers of chlorine into the boot of his car – it was a car boot like no other customer I’d seen – mainly because it seemed to be overflowing with prescription drugs! Samples he called them. There were also boxes of medical brochures, branded pens, writing pads and sticky notes and these other interesting things called ‘call record cards’.  In those days – there were no laptops, mobile phones, not even a pager. Call records were handwritten and regularly checked by Sales Supervisors to ensure they were completed correctly.

Wally explained to me that being a Medical Representative was a fantastic job – it gave you plenty of autonomy; the chance to travel around Melbourne and Victoria; attending interstate and sometimes overseas conferences.  According to Wally, you could meet lots of interesting people working in healthcare including doctors, pharmacists, nurses and tell them fascinating facts about new medicines that would make a difference to their patients.  It was an important job.  It was also your ‘entry ticket’ into the industry and the first step in building a career.

In 1990, a new model of representative was becoming more common on the pharmaceutical scene.  The pharma industry was recruiting biomedical and science graduates, pharmacists, and nurses into sales roles.  A lot of young, well educated, articulate and competitive people, eager to learn and succeed, climb the corporate ladder, travel the world and make a difference.  Well at least, that is how I saw it.

In thinking about this blog, I am reminded about how much was expected of Medical Representatives when I joined the industry.  We met with general practitioners, specialists, hospital medical officers, professors, community pharmacists, practice nurses, directors of pharmacy, therapeutic committees, purchasing managers, the list goes on.  We had to have a thorough understanding of every clinical paper, the ‘APMA’ code of conduct, the Therapeutic Guidelines (for those of us promoting antibiotics) and knowledge of the regulatory system and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. 

I loved learning about the products, all the technical aspects – the pharmacodynamics, pharmacokinetics, the diseases the products were designed to treat – the ‘features and benefits’. I was fascinated how the Australian healthcare system worked – regulation, reimbursement, clinical trials, what the Commonwealth was responsible for and how it differed from the States and Territories.  Wally was right – there was autonomy, the opportunity to meet lots of interesting people and travel all over the state.  He forgot to mention the countless hours of sitting in waiting rooms, having appointments cancelled or being thrown out of pharmacies because ‘Tuesday isn’t rep day’.  To be frank, I did not love the job, there were too many wasted, unproductive hours.  That said, I did get to read a lot of novels, work with, and meet excellent people and did well enough to get an ‘office job’. 

On reflection, the time I spent ‘carrying the bag’, ‘on the road’ was invaluable.  It provided me with an insight into the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry that has provided a better career foundation than I could ever have hoped for.  Most importantly, it gave me a chance to talk to and learn from the medicines industry’s customers every day.  A fundamental to any business’s success.

A big thank you, John Kennedy, for giving a kid from the country a go!