Nurses touching lives via the pharmaceutical industry

By Morgan Abney | 05/11/2018

A hospital nurse learns about her counterparts in pharma.

Touching lives via the pharmaceutical industryNurses are nurses no matter where they practice, as this hospital nurse found out when she spent time learning what nurses do in the pharmaceutical industry.

When you hear the word “nurse,” you might conjure up images of someone in scrubs in an operating room or the pleasant diabetes educator in your physician’s office. Words that come to mind when you think of nurses might include empathetic, compassionate, and trusted. (In the United States, nursing continues to be, year after year, the most trusted profession, according to annual Gallup polls.) 

If you’ve been a patient, you may have felt some relief knowing that you had nurses on your side, ready to advocate for you and help ensure a positive outcome. But have you ever thought of nurses in a pharmaceutical company advocating for patients? I never did—until now. 

As a practicing hospital nurse, I know how important my patient advocacy role is. Nurses who provide direct patient care do this innately. But I had no idea that nurses in nontraditional settings do the same, including those employed in the pharmaceutical industry. Their clinical backgrounds—combined with their skills in critical thinking, prioritization, and communication—make them a valuable asset in that setting. 

Shadow RN
As part of my curriculum in a graduate leadership program, I was given a unique opportunity to “shadow” nurses working at Eli Lilly and Company, a pharmaceutical corporation based in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. Because more than 350 nurses work at Lilly, it’s an ideal place to learn about the many different roles nurses can have in the pharmaceutical industry and the value they bring to that nontraditional setting. 

Over a six-month period, I shadowed and interviewed 25 registered nurses, including three residing outside the United States. Lilly nurses serve more than 50 departments in this global company, and their average length of employment at Lilly is 13 years. The nurses I interacted with had all practiced in traditional settings prior to joining the company, a critical factor in their ability to speak effectively on behalf of patients and their families. 

All the nurses I shadowed have Bachelor of Science in Nursing degrees, and 60 percent have master’s degrees. Although not all were in official leadership positions, most spoke to the importance of their ability to lead without formal authority, a skill gained from their nursing backgrounds. As one nurse shared with me, “We are the gel that holds all the multidisciplinary teams together, which gives us the ability to lead without [formal] authority.” I interacted with nurses representing more than 20 corporate functions, including, but not limited to global patient safety, clinical trials, corporate social responsibility, market research, employee health services, medical affairs, quality, business alliances, human resources, health outcomes, patient and healthcare practitioner (HCP) education, and project management.             

A nurse is a nurse
What amazed me most? That nurses are nurses, regardless of where we practice. Every nurse I spoke to demonstrated empathy, a core attribute of nurses worldwide. Every one of them shared with me the importance of advocacy, of being the voice for patients and families. They often stated: “It is our obligation. Our patients depend on us.” When asked what transferable skills they carry over from their previous practices to the pharmaceutical industry, also known as pharma, their responses included effective communication skills; ability to prioritize; leadership skills, both formal and informal; and medical knowledge. 

I was also impressed by the high value companies such as Lilly place on nurses who work outside direct patient care in nontraditional settings. Beyond the credentials behind their names, nurses’ creativity, ability to lead, and capacity to see the “big picture” are recognized and greatly appreciated. Beyond degree or title, nurses are sought after for their clinical expertise and real-life patient experience. One nurse shared with me, “Because of my clinical experience and medical background, I am able to provide insight to my colleagues who have no idea what the patient experience is like.”           

Lilly nurses have a group called the Lilly Nursing Forum. These globally minded nurses have pooled their extensive and diverse nursing expertise in a collaborative effort to provide value and service to patients, communities, and their company. They do this above and beyond their core jobs because they care, because they are nurses, and because they know how critical it is for them to be the voice for all of us. Their partnership with local schools of nursing provides a phenomenal opportunity for nurses such as me to be exposed to a world that most don’t know exists. 

Different environment, still speaking for patients
This experience has opened my eyes beyond what I could have imagined. These nurses often travel the world to educate healthcare practitioners, start clinical trials, or do quality audits. One told me she had never been outside the United States until she joined Lilly. She has now traveled to more than 20 countries. Nurses in the pharmaceutical industry work in an environment much different from those in traditional settings, but their core remains the same: They still seek to be a voice for patients and families and to make life better for patients around the world. One nurse shared, “Although I no longer have the ability to touch one patient’s life, I now have the ability to affect many lives, and that is why I love what I do!” 

Before my six months at Lilly, I did not realize the importance of having nurses in the pharmaceutical industry, but now I cannot imagine the industry without nurses. The pharmaceutical industry needs nurses because they are often the gateway of information between the patient and the healthcare system. After shadowing and interacting with 25 nurses at Lilly, I can attest to how lucky we are, as healthcare consumers, that those nurses are representing us. 

No matter what career path you choose as a nurse—traditional or nontraditional—you will always be a nurse. You will always be a patient advocate. And, yes, you will always be a leader—a healthcare professional who, in pursuing your own career goals, is working on behalf of those you serve. RNL

Morgan Abney, MSN, RN, recently concluded her final semester at the University of Indianapolis in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, where she earned her master’s degree in nursing and health systems leadership. LB Wong, MBA, MSN, RN, also a member of Sigma, was Abney’s preceptor at Lilly.

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