Sitting down with Dr. Boerstoel-Streefland, we discuss how and where her career begun and how that transitioned to a role in drug safety.
- Having very direct contact with patients and making an impact on their lives is very tangible and directly rewarding.
- What ultimately got me hooked on drug safety is the breadth and the depth of the function.
- What inspires me most is helping to reduce suffering by contributing to getting the best treatment to the right patient.
Dr. Mariette Boerstoel-Streefland is the Senior Vice-President of Pharmacovigilance (PV) and Drug Safety for Alexion. She’s an accomplished global drug safety executive with extensive expertise in all areas of drug safety and risk management. Dr. Boerstoel-Streefland began her career working as a pediatric physician and transitioned to a role in clinical development and drug safety that she thought would be a short six-month challenge. Thanks to the positive patient impact she experienced in her pharmaceutical industry role, 30 years later Dr. Boerstoel-Streefland has become a leading voice in pharmacovigilance.
What is it about pharmacovigilance and drug safety that sparked the drive and passion throughout your career?
Dr. Mariette Boerstoel-Streefland: Most people don’t like being in hospitals, but I love hospitals. I started my career as a physician, and when I took a sabbatical to learn more about clinical development, I wanted to pull my hair out and run back to the clinic after just two or three weeks. Having very direct contact with patients and making an impact on their lives is very tangible and directly rewarding. But working in drug safety on the other hand, is not that visible, and when it is, it's often bad news. However, my manager was a visionary leader who not only allowed me, but encouraged me to carve out my own path, even to create my own safety database system where there was none.
What ultimately got me hooked on drug safety is the breadth and the depth of the function, because drug safety really touches all company’s products at all stages of its lifecycle, from the moment it is first tested in healthy volunteers and later in patients, through launch and marketing. So, it touches many different functions in the organization. Also, it is a very diverse discipline. On one hand, it’s a very organized, compliance-driven, logistical machine. On the other, there is a very strong medical/analytical focus as you analyze data and try to determine if an adverse event is due to a drug, part of a disease or some other patient behavior or circumstances. I felt that I was using more parts of my brain, if I can put it that way, than when I was treating individual patients as a physician.
What inspires you most about your work in this field of life sciences?
MBS: What inspires me most is helping to reduce suffering by contributing to getting the best treatment to the right patient while avoiding side effects. I’ve done a lot of change management and building of safety organizations. Helping create more effective patient safety organizations and enabling the people within them to both do their very best for patients and at the same time developing themselves -- that is very satisfying to me.
The inspiration also comes from the breadth of my role. There is a huge variety of work in drug safety. It’s across all products, the full lifecycle, global, with many different interactions from logistics, analytics, statistics, and more. I’m particularly inspired by serving patients when there is no alternative treatment and working on products for unmet medical needs.
At Alexion, we are developing products for very rare diseases. It’s unusual because it’s very expensive and commercially not always an attractive investment. For years, most companies focused on blockbuster products, but more recently people are starting to focus on rare diseases where there may be only a few hundred patients in the world. It’s a different ballgame. But these patients don’t have an alternative. If you can create products and bring them to the market to keep someone alive or improve their quality of life -- that is fulfilling. That's part of the Alexion product program.
You’ve had an impressive career. Have you ever faced challenges in your work because you’re a woman?
MBS: I’ve had a great career, but I’ve seen things evolve over the years. I started out in the Netherlands in a traditional organization that was quite male-dominated. I recall an interesting situation when I told my boss that I was pregnant for the first time and he said, “Oh, so you’re choosing family over career now, and give up on your ambition?” I looked at him directly and said, “I’m not giving up on one aspect of my life – I choose both!”
So, I had to work through some dated, traditional ideas and cultures. In another situation I had built a safety team for the developmental products and wrote a proposal to merge this with the postmarketing safety team to have more efficient and effective safety management and monitoring. I submitted the plan and it was accepted, so I expected that I would get to execute the plan and be the head of the new group – but instead it was given to a male colleague. I was disappointed and frustrated about this blatant inequality, but it was then that I received some good advice: “Stay the course; it’s your plan and eventually the organization will see your value.” That was a long time ago, in the ‘90s, and while it might have taken more time than I would have liked, my value was acknowledged and within a year I was the head of that department. Since then I have held various leadership positions and today I lead a fantastic team for an exciting company.
Do you have any advice for women entering the field of Pharmacovigilance and Drug Safety today?
MBS: I think you simply need to just be who you are, not think in terms of male or female, but rather in terms of what you can contribute. , As a manager, I value individuals and the diversity that each person brings to the table, which is enriching to any organization, in any environment.
I am very fortunate to currently be in an organization where there is a very strong representation of women across all levels, including in leadership roles, and a clear presence of mutual respect.
If you are working in an organization that hasn’t reached this level of gender equality yet, it may be useful to have a strong female leader who is outside of the line of your hierarchy to bounce ideas off of –someone you can talk to who can relate to gender issues.
Women should not be shy about their ambitions and capabilities. Women today are stepping up and claiming their careers, versus allowing themselves to be in the background. That said, if you're happy focusing on other aspects of your life, your family, that should also be respected. It is all about defining and pursuing our dreams.
This blog is part of a series that focuses on individual journeys of the women in life sciences who are driving change to how we develop and deliver better patient outcomes.