EP95 Medical Innovation Policy and the COVID Vaccine with Jocelyn Ulrich

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I AM GPH EP95 Medical Innovation Policy and the COVID Vaccine with Jocelyn Ulrich
EP95 Medical Innovation Policy and the COVID Vaccine with Jocelyn Ulrich

Maureen: Hi, my name is Maureen Zeufack, and you're listening to the I AM GPH podcast. In this episode, I sit down with Jocelyn Ulrich, an alumna from one of the earliest MPH classes here at GPH in 2009. Jocelyn currently works as a deputy vice-president in the medical innovation policy department of PhRMA, The Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America. In this conversation, she and I get into her role at PhRMA, which combines both public health and public policy to develop legislative and policy analysis, as well as interesting innovations in health that she's excited about. Additionally, Jocelyn and I discuss a bit about the COVID-19 vaccine, such as vaccine confidence and how efforts are being made to be more inclusive of all communities in vaccine rollout and healthcare as a whole. You're not going to want to miss out on this episode. Stayed tuned to hear more. 

Maureen: Hi, you're listening to the I AM GPH podcast. Today, I'm joined by Jocelyn Ulrich.Thank you for coming onto the podcast today, Jocelyn.

Jocelyn: Thanks for having me, Maureen. It's a pleasure to be here.

Maureen: So let's get started. Can you please tell us a bit more about your background and personal story? What drew you to this career path?

Jocelyn: Sure. So I originally was an aspiring opera singer. I believe I'm the only Global MPH student who had that particular background.

Maureen: I'm sure of it.

Jocelyn: I was temping at Pfizer in New York City and took a temporary job there while I was still singing part time and started working in our corporate affairs and with some donation programs and just really became very interested in global health, global public health, and public private partnerships. And I decided it would be really interesting to go back to school and get a Master’s in public health and try to evolve my career in a completely new direction. And that started a 20 year career in pharmaceutical policy. Started out working on clinical trials, clinical trial management for global studies. Worked on collaborations between the industry and the National Institutes of Health. And now I work for the trade association for the pharmaceutical industry. So it's been a really interesting career and quite different from where I started.

Maureen: That's fascinating. So since then, you've worked in multiple sectors from clinical research operations to policy and advocacy. So what led you to make these shifts in career and what did working in these different domains teach you? And how have they helped you now in your career?

Jocelyn: So starting out working on clinical trials was a great way to get an introduction into how medicines are developed and delivered to patients, and to really get an understanding of the complexity of the pharmaceutical industry and everything that goes into recruiting and retaining patients and identifying outcomes that are meaningful to those patients, and then how we use that information to seek FDA approval and then communicate the benefits to patients and to physicians. A really great way to understand that entire ecosystem. But then I became interested in how we regulate all of those processes. The pharmaceutical industry is actually the most regulated industry in the United States, and all of the policies and regulations and legal frameworks that oversee that entire process are really fascinating. And so I became really interested with policy and wanting to work to advance policies that found the right balance between innovation and access and public health.

Maureen: Wow. I think that's really interesting to see how one experience can take you from the other and really help you flourish.

Jocelyn: Yeah.

Maureen: So you currently serve as Deputy Vice-President of Medical Innovation Policy. Can you tell me more about your organization and the work that you do?

Jocelyn: Certainly. So PhRMA is The Pharmaceutical and Research Manufacturers of America, and we are a trade association and our members are the 35 or so largest pharmaceutical companies operating in the United States. And so as a member-driven organization, we work on behalf of our members to advance policies that create a positive environment for innovation in the United States. My team in particular is in policy and research. So for MPH students who want to think about careers in trade associations or in policy, it's a fascinating place to be. We analyze policies coming from both administrative agencies or from Congress. We generate research to find evidence-based policymaking to help educate policy makers. We work closely with our colleagues in federal advocacy, who are our lobbyists who go talk to policy makers, and with our alliance groups to make sure that they can understand some complex topics. So a key skill is to take the complex policy ideas and make them understandable for a lay audience, which is a whole skill in and of itself.

Maureen: Right.

Jocelyn: And our job really in the medical innovation team is to spend a lot of time thinking about the benefit of biopharmaceutical innovation to patients. And so that's a really fun place to work. We get to study and learn constantly in our job about new types of therapies, gene therapies, things that are transforming the lives of patients. So it's a constant learning environment. It's really fun.

Maureen: So you just touched on a bit of this duality of policy and public health existing in the same sphere of your job. Can you talk more about this intersection of public health knowledge and policy that informs your work?

Jocelyn: Absolutely. So right now, for instance, everyone is focused on COVID-19 and how are we going to beat COVID-19? Our companies are key to that fight. They are the manufacturers of the vaccines and the treatments that we're seeing. So a key role for us has been to explain the science, to do outreach to communities about the vaccine safety. We're working in particular with Black and brown communities to do a campaign, to do outreach to local, state and federal governments. So it's a real intersection of policy and public health goals, especially around COVID.

Maureen: What might people be surprised to learn about the biopharmaceutical industry and policy?

Jocelyn: You know, I think that the industry at times can suffer from some negative perception. I think people who are rightly concerned about being able to afford their medicines and out of patient costs tend to have a somewhat singular view of the industry. And I would say that it's a place where there are thousands of dedicated scientists and public health professionals who are working on really complex scientific problems and payment and reimbursement is a part of that, but there's so many other aspects to working in this field and it's really a rewarding place to be.

Maureen: So how have current events in the past year, in terms of COVID-19, impacted the work that you're doing? You said that it's been definitely influenced by that, but how has it shifted that kind of workflow?

Jocelyn: So every year, PhRMA and our members get together and try to set priorities for what would be important for us to be working on. And obviously once 2020 started that plan went right out the window and everything became all hands on deck, "How do we be COVID?" And my year started with a survey to our members to try to get our arms around the direct support that our companies were giving to China at the time, be it PPE, medicines, testing kits. That quickly evolved and shifted to a whole new round of issues around understanding what emergency use authorization rather than an FDA approval meant, explaining to the National Governors Association what the industry's role was going to be. How do we establish a national stockpile? Meeting with FEMA. So the list goes on and on of trying to figure out how we could all work together, both between the private sector and the government, and then between our member companies as well, just an unbelievable amount of collaboration, education. And from a personal and professional growth perspective, I've learned an incredible amount about vaccines, vaccine access policies, all kinds of things. And it really has been a very inspiring year to be a part of the industry as well and to see a new vaccine developed in record time has been really, really rewarding.

Maureen: Thank you for sharing that. And in terms of the industry, how do you think that the pharmaceutical industry has evolved or changed as a result of this whole pandemic and the process that we've been experiencing?

Jocelyn: So I think one of the things that we are really thinking about are, "Can we do things faster, more flexibly? What are some of the learnings? Can we use digital health tools? Can we reach patients remotely so that they don't have to travel to a hospital to participate in a clinical trial? How do we use all these new tools and how do we bring that to bear into the future?  I think in particular, How do we work with the Food and Drug administration to make sure that those flexibilities can be used for other areas of therapeutic development? So there will be a lot of lessons learned, I think, going forward. But definitely collaboration, communication and flexibility, I think, will be three of those key areas that will be critically important.

Maureen: What are the ways that you think that everyday people who don't work in healthcare policy to stay involved in advocacy and best protecting their interests?

Jocelyn: It's just been really interesting to see this year how people have suddenly gained an entirely new level of interest in clinical trials, in FDA approval processes. People are listening to advisory committee meetings. I think people have an entirely new appreciation and understanding for research and science and the importance that science has in our lives. And so I hope that will be inspiring for new people to come get into the field, to be inspired to work in science, to work in STEM, to work in public health. I think we have seen some evidence of that already. We've seen medical schools. But even beyond those fields, hopefully people will be inspired to continue to be engaged and active and to advocate for their own health and wellbeing, and to understand the real value that vaccines and medicines bring to their lives. We couldn't end this pandemic without a vaccine. And so that's, I think, been a really important lesson for everyone.

Maureen: I'm curious to think about although things are quite uncertain and we're just starting this wave of vaccine rollout, what do you see happening as a result of this or this change in approach to personal health and wellness in terms of COVID-19?

Jocelyn: It's a great question. I think we'll all of us wash our hands more often, probably.

Maureen: That's the hope.

Jocelyn: I've been thinking to myself when I'm getting ready to go back to commuting to downtown DC on a regular basis, will I wear a mask on the subway? Probably. So I think just for all of us to be aware that infectious agents are around us all the time. And we studied it when I was at school, we studied SARS. We studied the impact of global epidemics and the potential for them. And having gone through it as a whole different manner. But I do hope that people will prioritize those basic public health safety measures that I think we've seen can really make a difference.

Maureen: So looking forward again, what future medical innovations are you most excited about and why would you pick those?

Jocelyn: So I mentioned briefly before, but I think the new era of cell and gene therapies are going to be really game changing. We've already seen their potential. There are over 7,000 rare diseases that are caused by a single genetic mutation. We now have the technology to potentially edit or add or change those genes to potentially cure those diseases. Everything ranging from rare cancers to pediatric diseases, to sickle cell disease. And that's going to have just a huge impact on patients going forward. And the science is incredibly exciting and just so interesting. So I think we will have to see how the rest of the healthcare delivery system is able to evolve to make room for those technologies. And that's a very complicated, yet very interesting, policy space as well that we're working on that.

Maureen: And I had another COVID related question in terms of you spoke about doing outreach with Black and brown communities. I think that in those communities that there's a lot of mistrust-- in all communities, I think a lot of people are feeling some sort of mistrust or wariness regarding getting vaccinated. What do you say to that? And what do you think is the message that people need to be hearing?

Jocelyn: Yeah, this is a great question, and one that we've actually spent quite a lot of time thinking and talking about at PhRMA and beyond. This year, looking at George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, our CEOs got together and made a commitment to health equity and social justice, and to really think about how to do something that was meaningful and impactful. And our CEOs made a commitment to diversity in clinical trials and to ending this pandemic. And vaccine confidence is a key part of that work. So we have spoken to a lot of communities. We've spoken to our patient groups, physicians who are working directly with communities of color, experts in the field, and we've really been trying to find where PhRMA can be helpful. We do have a campaign that we're running, but I think what we're hearing and what we're learning... We've also spoken directly to communities, I think the biggest way to move the needle is for people to hear messages from those they trust, whether it be their personal physician or someone in their community, their church leaders. Those messages seem to be the most impactful. I think the programs we're seeing where there's direct outreach, we're bringing the vaccines to people, those seem to be the most successful efforts. Interestingly, now we're seeing more acceptance, I think, among Black and brown communities than amongst some other communities where messages about vaccines not being safe have permeated. And there's a lot of misinformation out there right now. And it's a pretty difficult problem for public health professionals to fight this huge amount of vaccine misinformation, but we're certainly trying to do our part.

Maureen: Thank you for sharing that. I think it was so great to hear that PhRMA is making a commitment and that public health practitioners are making a commitment to try to see how we can reach out to people of all backgrounds, because this has been such a long year, long pandemic. And I know that we're just all trying to do our best to mitigate any more harm or fatalities.

Jocelyn: Yeah.

Maureen: What advice would you give to current public health students who want to craft a career at the intersection of health and policy? Any strategies or wisdom to impart?

Jocelyn: I think be open-minded to where policy is taking place. I think there were only a few of us in the MPH program who had pharmaceutical backgrounds when I was in the program. That may still be the case. But pharmaceutical policy is actually a really interesting area. And there are other areas of health where people might not think immediately to see where the intersection of policy is, where there's great opportunity. It did help me in my career to move to DC. After I graduated from NYU, my husband and I moved to the DC area. So we've been here about 10 years now. And DC is the heart of health policy work, especially on the domestic side. So that did help. And I think be persistent, talk to people, talk to your network. I think one of the things that I found helpful was to find people who were doing the kind of work I was really interested in and try to see what they had done in their career paths to get them where they were and try to take inspiration from that a bit as well.

Maureen: And so I have a bonus question. Very few of our guests have had a background in music and opera performance. I think you might be the first one on our podcast ever. How do you think your musical training shapes the way that you approach your work or life in general?

Jocelyn: Yeah, I think what drew me to music was wanting to communicate a story to people. And in so many ways, good policy work is really the same. I'm trying to convince an audience of an evidence-based policy. I try to craft convincing arguments. I try to deliver those arguments. So I think a lot of those skills really translated. I do love telling stories and there is really an art of storytelling in good public policy writing and policy craft. So I think that's been the most direct. The other thing is just loving to connect with people and move people. Similarly, being in an industry where I felt my work could have an impact was also something that I think appealed to me in both potential career paths and what drew me into the public health side of things. But yeah.

Maureen: That's great to hear. Thank you for sharing that. Are there any last words or anything you would like to share with our audience before we close out?

Jocelyn: I mean, I really loved my time at NYU. It was a great program. I think I was in the first class of the Global program as well and made some lifelong friends there, and it was just a great experience and really a springboard to a lot of really wonderful professional experiences. So for anyone who's currently there who wants to learn more about policy and the pharmaceutical space, my door is open anytime.

Maureen: Wow. That's fantastic. So with that, we'll close out our interview. Thank you for coming on the podcast, Jocelyn.

Jocelyn: Thanks for having me, Maureen.

Maureen: My pleasure.