Darius Hughes, Head of Vaccines Business Unit UK, Pfizer

pharmafile | July 15, 2019 | Feature | Business Services, Manufacturing and Production, Medical Communications, Research and Development, Sales and Marketing Darius Hughes, Pfizer, Working Life, biotech, pharma, vaccines 

“Vaccines provide a unique opportunity to have a positive effect on hundreds of thousands of people” – Darius Hughes, Head of Vaccines Business Unit UK, Pfizer

Tell us about your career.  How did you find your way into the position you’re in today?

Prior to joining Pfizer, I spent 15 years at Boots, the chemist.  Having qualified as a pharmacist and having completed my pre-registration training in hospital, I had gained some experience of working within the NHS, but I quickly became frustrated by the difficulties associated with trying to make an impression.  However, working firstly in independent pharmacies and then in Boots quickly gave me a feel for interacting directly with patients and the impact I could have on people daily. After several Boots store manager roles, I moved into an operational role based at the Boots head office in Nottingham, focusing on pharmacy services, including some of the first in-store services such as prescription collection services and medicines use reviews, where I learnt the power of educational materials in helping to facilitate better conversations between HCPs and patients.

After a couple of different roles in Crookes Healthcare, I joined Pfizer in 2004 with responsibility for POM-to-P switches in the consumer healthcare division.  During my time at the company, I have held various positions at a local, regional and global level, including a two-year stint in France, and have been Head of Pfizer Vaccines UK for the past five years.

What did that experience teach you and how do you think it helped you get to where you are today?  Do you still use the skills you learned during your time at Boots?

My Boots experience taught me a great deal – primarily about people – and I continue to use the skills I acquired during that time every single day.

As a store manager in London, I encountered people from all walks of life.  Our customers ranged from people dealing with heroin addiction who came in to collect their methadone prescriptions to members of the public who wanted advice on things like treating sunburn.  So, I learnt a lot about communicating effectively with different people and it also helped give me a sense of perspective.

In addition, the experience taught me about running teams and managing individuals.  At the age of 25, I had around 50 Boots employees reporting in to me from pharmacists to van drivers to cleaners.  I was responsible for ensuring a busy London store opened daily and that it was staffed appropriately, so it was a pressurised environment.

What has driven your interest in vaccines and in your wider career?

Having an impact on people and society is what has motivated me throughout my career and has inspired me to get up and come to work every morning.  At first, it was as a pharmacist and knowing that I was doing my bit individually from a patient point of view.  Now, it is as part of the pharmaceutical industry and realising that I can have an extremely broad impact across very many people.

Working within vaccines provides a unique opportunity to have a positive effect on hundreds of thousands of people during the course of their lives.  Only clean water rivals vaccines at reducing infectious diseases and deaths, and immunisation has the potential to prevent six million deaths worldwide each year.  Vaccination has resulted in dramatic falls in rates of many vaccine-preventable diseases in the UK and I feel incredibly privileged to be able to contribute to such a vitally important field of medicine.

You’ve worked at Pfizer for nearly 15 years – what about the company has inspired that kind of loyalty?

Interestingly, I have now been at Pfizer for the same amount of time that I was at Boots and I see lots of parallels between the two companies.

From a Pfizer perspective, it’s really the purpose and the culture that keeps me here.  It is the principle of putting patients first, focusing on the things that will make the difference and lead to breakthroughs that change patients’ lives.  These serve as a daily reminder of the importance and the value of the work we are doing.

We are all encouraged to be ourselves and are supported in our efforts to change and innovate, whether that is on a personal or professional level.  The breadth of opportunities that are open to us, as well as the chances to develop and grow, are also a real draw and the company places tremendous emphasis on work-life balance, recognising that happy and healthy employees are much more likely to produce great work and to stick around.

What do you find most challenging in your current role? 

I’d say that the key one is trying to reconcile the priorities of our various partners, the main one obviously being the NHS. Despite the indisputable benefit that vaccines have had on public health, we still need to work to convince our stakeholders of their value and to improve access and uptake against a backdrop of ongoing austerity, increasing complacency and damaging “fake news”, as highlighted recently by both Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, and Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.  Ultimately, immunisation is a victim of its own success and consequently its full value is now often overlooked.  However, we believe that vaccination should be seen as a critical investment for public health and the NHS prevention agenda.

You mentioned that Pfizer values its employees’ work/life balance; how do you personally maintain that balance?

Pfizer very much advocates personal energy renewal, which certainly makes striking the work/life balance easier than it might be if I had another employer.

Clearly different things work for different people, but for me it’s essential to keep fit by exercising a few times a week and to find time for the people and activities that matter to me, like my family and hobbies such as tennis and sailing.

I’m also a great believer in the power of holidays.  Having the opportunity to properly switch off and completely recharge means that I am able to come back to the office with a new lease of life, as well as helping me maintain that all-important perspective.

What advice would you give to those who are interested in following a similar path to yours?  What key lessons have you learnt throughout your time in the industry?

For the pharmacists out there, I would say that it is helpful to remember that you can have a career outside of the NHS, and that if you do decide to work for the pharmaceutical industry then your highly transferable skills will enable you to pursue a number of different roles; for example, within medical information, regulatory or medicines development.

The key things that I’ve learnt during my career are to be brave and to take opportunities, including stretch assignments.  Always make sure that you are doing a job that you enjoy and that you find interesting, as well as one that will enable you to develop and grow.  Life is short so don’t waste time doing something that you don’t think is adding value or sparking your curiosity.

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