Leading with Purpose
“We all have questions about how to serve best, and only through sharing our stories, challenges and solutions can we, together, find better answers,” said Sonal Bhatia (the VP of North Am Medical Affairs, Rare Disease, Pfizer) during our phone interview. I met Sonal at eyeforpharma Philidelphia and recognized in her all the ingredients of a purpose-driven leader. She didn’t hesitate when I asked if she would share her story with us with the hope of inspiring more patient-focused, purpose-driven leaders in our industry. Read below to learn how a trip to India, a playdate and jewellery from Mexico all contributed to Sonal’s noble career in Rare Disease at Pfizer.
When Sonal was a little girl, she watched her Grandfather work magic, on a year-long trip home to India. As she played on the floor, she was amazed at how people would come to his door and share their problems. He would just touch them, sense what they needed and help them. It seemed they always went away feeling better. He created treatment options from herbs and plants.
Later, she saw this same magic when on playdates with her friend in Mexico. Her friend’s mother was a physician. They played doctor in her waiting room and Sonal watched in amazement as the patients steamed in and out. Each one of them helped. Sonal was enthralled. How could one person help so many people with her knowledge?! It seemed that Sonal’s path was clear. She too would be a physician.
In the summers between her years at University of Toronto, she went back to Mexico and worked in hospitals. While she loved working with patients, she was frustrated that she couldn’t magically solve their problems. Their cholesterol would remain high, sugar levels in patients with diabetes stayed up. She was frustrated that cocktails weren’t helping. There was a disconnect to writing a prescription and seeing change. She felt frustrated with how medicine was practiced, with the need to see more and more patients. Seven minutes was not enough to understand the patient needs.
“There must be something else,” she thought. “How could I have a bigger impact?” She wanted to find a way to hear from patients more and fix issues earlier in the stream of disease to prevent people being 70 years-old on cocktails of medicines that don’t always help.
In the meantime, to put herself through University and Medical School, she started a side business, importing silver jewellery from Mexico to Toronto. This combined with working at McDonald’s not only paid for school, it opened her eyes to the world of business. When the opportunity arose to join CDM – an agency for pharma with a Medical / Scientific Affairs dept, she jumped at the chance to join as Medical Director and start a new adventure.
She saw joy in her role to educate people on the diseases that their clients were working on. That’s when she had the realization “Oh my goodness – what I learned in Med School was just the tip of the iceberg”, she said. Every new client opportunity required her to dive in deep and learn totally new things. She loved it and began to see that pharma wasn’t as big and bad as she had been led to believe.
When the opportunity to join Pfizer in 2007 presented itself, she was excited to roll up her sleeves to support their work with inhaled insulin. She was excited as this innovative product would help patients with diabetes to maintain glucose levels. She was surprised when the product didn’t do well. But on reflection she had a huge ah-ha. It hadn’t done well because they hadn’t listen to patients. Patients weren’t interested in the level of complexity the product required. This was her first eye-opener to how science and business must meet with the patient at the centre. “If you miss the boat with patients, no matter what you do, you won’t succeed,” she summarized.
Her move to Lipitor was a remarkable experience; launching a product that mattered to so many patients. It prepared her for her next role transitioning to new product – Eliquis, an oral anti-coagulant. She partnered with BMS to help change lives and prevent strokes in patients with atrial fibrillation. Negotiation, influence, tenacity, gratitude, culture – were all lessons she learned. She became a trusted partner to help others apply the medical knowledge they needed and the proper focus on the patients to make the right decisions. All of this, she feels now, “taught me a lot on who I am, how I work with others and how I adapt.” It prepared her for her most important role in rare disease.
In last three years they have built this organization and are communicating their intentions better. She says, “We’re here to collaboration and innovate because every single patient counts”. It brought her back to why she was in medicine in the first place. “Here with rare disease it is about individual patients,” she says. “We want to bring medicines that make sense. There are communities of people with no medicine. We are here for them.” We keep them at the forefront of everything we do.
It is a full circle back to where she started and her original mission to serve each patient. It’s funny looking back she says. She remembers opening the text books for cellular/molecular biology in the mid 90’s and reading about problems for which now in 2020 there are solutions with gene therapy. She didn’t think she would live to see this, and here it is. Better yet – she is leading the charge to bring this much needed solution to patients! What could be better!
Sonal shares how her mother, a caring teacher, really supported her when she saw how she cared for people. She told Sonal as a young woman “Do what you love – fly with your wings”. Usually, said Sonal, Indian parents want you to get married at a certain age. She felt free to go to med school and worry about marriage later. Having her mom back up her decision was key. Sonal wants to pay it forward and pass on that freedom and confidence to not just her daughter but to the young women she mentors.
Her most fruitful day, when she feels really good about herself – is when she not only helps patients but also mentors younger women. “Guiding people through life fills me up more than my paycheque,” Sonal reflects. She realizes her mission at Pfizer is to help patients and to help grow the current generation of employees to help them have passion and understand their why and be empowered to make the changes patients need them to make.
When asked how she helps her people connect with their purpose she admits it’s a challenge. One tip she has is to offer “Skip meetings” (whereby you ‘skip a level’ and meet with your boss’s boss). She has an open-door policy but on top of that schedules touch points whereby she has half-hour appointments with everyone. They have an open agenda, no prep. They just get on a call and chat. What she found, when she kept the agenda open, was that they wanted to talk about careers and how to manage doing a great job at home and a work. “They wanted to know how I balanced this act,” said Sonal. “At end of the year, my direct reports told me their people really appreciated it. It was not normal, they said, but appreciated,” she laughed. Then she added, “People have tried to take them away saying ‘Your calendar is insane! Those half hour meetings are killing you,’. But I prioritize them. It is important for us to connect and really know each other.”
Last year Sonal was recognized by Pfizer and HBA (Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association) as a Rising Star. It made her realize she had never stopped to think of the impact she has had or could have. It has inspired her to give even more back. She feels so very grateful. It is her hope that by sharing her story, she might inspire even one more person to think about the noble, trusted role we have to serve patients.
Want to learn more from Sonal? Enjoy this short interview with her where she discusses questions like:
1. Why do we need to create real-world evidence?
2. What is the evidence we need to create?
3. How do we get medicines to patients faster?
4. How does continually bringing the patient voice in help?