From Mice to Databases: Health Economics and Outcomes Research

By: Keyaara M. Robinson

Many STEM Ph.D. students may be wondering how they can translate their lab bench skills into a career outside of academia. The good news is that our knowledge of the scientific method is valuable both in solving complex problems both in the lab and in a career in Health Economics and Outcomes Research. If you would like to learn more about this exciting field, keep reading!

On September 20th, the Rutgers iJOBS program hosted a unique simulation exploring the Health Economics and Outcomes Research (HEOR) career field. iJOBS simulations provide participants with the opportunity to experience what it’s like to work in the specific field that is being presented, in this case: HEOR. HEOR is a growing field within the pharmaceutical industry that functions to strategically develop plans to ensure that patients are prescribed the best drug therapy for their disease. The speaker for this event, Dr. Dharm Patel, provided participants with a plethora of information about the exponentially growing field.  Furthermore, participants were able to complete hands-on activities to gain a better understanding of the day-to-day projects that one would undertake in an HEOR role.

The event began with a brief introduction to the speaker, where participants learned about Dr. Patel’s past and present experience in the HEOR field. Dr. Dharm Patel began his scientific career studying biology at Monmouth University where he received his BS. Like many of you reading this blog, Dr. Patel completed his Ph.D. training at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and was a fellow in the Biotechnology Training Program. He earned his Ph.D. in Molecular Biosciences with a focus in Biochemistry in the lab of Dr. Samuel Bunting. While pursuing his Ph.D., he also obtained a certificate in Pharmaceutical and Clinical Trial Management from Rutgers University-New Brunswick and was part of the first iJOBS trainee class. Dr. Patel began his professional career at LEO Pharma where he supported LEO’s psoriasis portfolio as a Manager in Scientific Affairs. He later transitioned into Health Economics and Outcomes Research as a Senior Manager, where he supported the immuno-dermatology portfolio at LEO Pharma. In this role, he was responsible for executing pre-launch HEOR activities for LEO’s first biologic to treat atopic dermatitis, tralokinumab. Dr. Patel has since joined GlaxoSmithKline as Director of Global Value, Evidence & Outcomes-Specialty.

 What is HEOR?

Health Economics and Outcomes Research (HEOR) is a quickly growing field within the pharmaceutical industry that functions to ensure that patients receive the best possible treatment for their conditions. As with many roles within the pharmaceutical industry, the HEOR team works collaboratively with a variety of functional groups. They are part of the Brand/Asset Team which consists of different functions including Medical Affairs, Marketing, Regulatory Affairs, Sales, Finance, Market Access, and Legal & Compliance. The HEOR team is primarily on the business side of pharma, but remains a scientific discipline in which one works with large databases and data structures to answer questions about physician treatment patterns, and whether the prescribed treatment will provide each patient with the best possible chance for success. Additionally, members of the HEOR team research a patient’s treatment history to determine whether they are receiving the best, most cost-effective treatment for their illness. To relate this to Ph.D. students, Dr. Patel provided an example of his own experience: As a student researcher, he worked with animal models to understand a specific disease. In his role on the HEOR team, he uses databases instead of mice to obtain answers, but the process of applying the scientific method to solve problems is the same. Instead of researching at a bench, team members are using published scientific results to support the strategies necessary to launch pharmaceutical products.

The Brand/Asset team begins its work in Phase IIB of the pharmaceutical development process. Members collaborate with the R&D and clinical development teams to gain critical clinical information about the drug product, its mechanism of action, and any information on the disease that can educate and enable physicians to properly prescribe the product.  The goal is to ensure that the product in question is being prescribed to patients who will have the most successful therapeutic outcomes. Once the product reaches Phase III, there is a “significant cross-functional collaboration” between the business and science teams to get the drug from Phase III to product launch. During this time, the HEOR team is responsible for gathering clinical evidence (i.e patient outcomes, patient quality of life) and developing strategies to communicate this scientific evidence to a diverse group called key customer segments, which include:

  • Key Opinion Leaders (KOL) – Experts in the field who educate doctors at conferences and congresses.
  • Healthcare providers – Doctors, clinicians, etc.
  • Health system – Hospitals, insurance coverage holders
  • Regulatory agencies – US FDA, European EMA
  • Payers and PBMs- Organizations that pay for therapy
  • Patients and patient advocacy groups – The most important groups in pharmaceutical development. Those receiving treatment and advocating for patients’ treatment.

Each key customer segment has a unique role in the process of getting a product from initial filing with the regulatory agency, to reaching the patients. Moreover, the HEOR team works strategically with the key customer segments at every step to make all of this possible.

To gain a better understanding of this unique field and get a feel for the type of projects undertaken in the role, participants were able to work on case studies based on real-life scenarios. As an example, one task was to convince a national payer to cover the cost of a drug so that patients could receive that specific therapy when it’s prescribed, instead of an alternative. To do this, participants were to develop a Value Proposition, or (a case for why one drug therapy should be used over another), in the treatment of severe asthma To develop their Value Proposition, participants were provided with literature containing Phase III data so that they could record the patient’s unmet need along with the drug’s mechanism of action, efficacy, safety, and costs associated with the therapy. Additionally, participants had to identify the weaknesses of the Value Proposition, i.e. areas where there was no evidence to support aspects of the Value Proposition, and figure out how to generate evidence to support the use of the therapy. In the end, participants developed a Value Proposition that successfully convinced the organization to pay for the therapy.

 How do you move beyond the bench?

So, you’ve gained a better understanding of what HEOR entails and are ready to take the next steps to transition into this career field. Here is what you need to know:

There are many pathways that one can take to secure a position in the field of HEOR. Dr. Patel provided some examples including training in epidemiology, health economics, and statistics, supporting HEOR from another role within a company, or obtaining a PharmD. If you don’t fall into one of those categories, all hope isn’t lost.

Dr. Patel provided some general career advice for breaking into HEOR:

To set yourself apart from other candidates, he stressed the importance of being familiar with the professional terminology and knowing how to apply it during interviews. Additionally, obtaining an internship in the industry before graduation, demonstrating that you are capable of learning new things, as well as being inquisitive and hard-working are all valuable skills. Dr. Patel also stated that once you are in an organization, that it is important to continue to work hard, build meaningful connections, and seek out mentorship—all of which will help with career advancement.

HEOR is a very accessible career field for STEM Ph.D. trainees; after all, we already have a major component of what it takes to work in HEOR: the ability to solve complex problems using the scientific method! All in all, this event showcased another career option for the STEM Ph.D.: how to break into the exciting field of HEOR!


This article was edited by Junior Editor Natalie Losada and Senior Editor Brianna Alexander.

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