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#HardCases: GSK Vaccine Chief Writes Open Inspiration on LinkedIn.

#HardCases – This article is part of LinkedIn’s Hard Cases series, where healthcare professionals share the toughest challenges they’ve faced in their careers.

I reached out to Thomas Breuer – Vice President of GSK Vaccines, and he permitted to share his inspiring story... ENJOY.

The workplace has transformed over the years and young people today are encouraged to embrace a career of constant evolution and change. 

For those entering medical school, the same linear path towards becoming a specialist practitioner, which I myself was once on, remains largely unchanged.

However, three times now, I’ve stepped off the beaten path.

Each time, against the advice of many peers. In doing so, I ultimately evolved from treating patients individually, to making physician-based decisions impacting one country, to playing an important role in the health and well-being of millions worldwide.

The first fork in the road – taking a detour on a scenic route

Medical school suited me. I loved the challenge and diversity, and I was excited by the positive impact I could make in the lives of others by becoming a doctor.

Throughout medical school I worked as a nurse, taking internships in and outside Germany, and planned to take time off to do the same in the developing world before my final exams. However, the year before graduation, the German Government announced that the rules to become a physician would change.

Taking time off for my trip would result in a 75% pay cut, unpaid night and weekend duties, and the title of “Physician in training” for 18 months. Not going would allow me to become a fully paid physician directly upon graduation.

So what did I do? I went to India for seven months.

During my time in India, I experienced infectious diseases I had only read about (i.e. Tetanus, Leprosy, Tuberculosis, Typhoid, Japanese-Encephalitis) and saw the impact of medicine, and a way of life, very different from what I knew in Germany.

It was an experience that has greatly enriched my career and influenced the choices I subsequently made. And, on a side note, it is where I first met my wife.

The second fork in the road – from the fast lane to a rural back road 

Once back in Germany, I made my way through all the qualifications needed to become an internist.

I was on my last leg to become a gastroenterologist when reality hit –practicing a single specialty in medicine for the next 30-40 years scared me. It lacked the challenge and diversity I felt I needed. 

Coincidentally, at that very time, the German government was offering scholarships to study infectious disease epidemiology abroad due to a lack of experts at home.

I had long been fascinated by the idea that by doing field studies and applying statistical methods, one could find associations long before real causes were understood; a classic example of this is the association between smoking and lung cancer.

I was fascinated by the mystery and challenge that the field of epidemiology presented, especially regarding infectious diseases, like those I saw in India.

Therefore, to the shock of my colleagues, at the very point that years of hard work were finally about to pay off financially, my wife and I agreed to pack up our two children (a third one would soon be on the way), go back to living on a scholarship salary and move to Texas.

In hindsight, I absolutely made the right choice.

While getting my MSc in Epidemiology, I discovered that the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) in the USA opened a few “disease detective” positions each year for foreign nationals – an opportunity for which I successfully applied and filled for two years.

Then, when the German government evolved the Robert Koch Institute from a lab-based research institute into a public health institute, addressing infectious diseases epidemiology and country wide surveillance through new infectious disease laws, I was well placed to come in as the country’s first head of infectious disease epidemiology.

So, by taking a risk, I ended up with a top public health job and a promising career as a German government employee and I might mention a secure and stable job for life.

The third fork in the road – into the deep dark woods

While at the Robert Koch Institute, my team was able to positively impact public health through surveillance, programmes, regulations and more.

But, I also saw that the largest impact on disease burden was coming from vaccines.

So, when a colleague showed me a posting for a role in the vaccines industry – heading up a small epidemiology team  I started thinking. And, once again I found myself making a decision that made my peers question my judgement – leaving a secure job in Public Health and heading off to the “the dark side,” the pharmaceutical industry

I admit that even I had my doubts about this last step. After all, the portrayal of industry is not exactly always positive in medical school, in hospitals, in public health, or in the media.

Luckily, what I discovered in industry was an amazing parallel universe of highly dedicated people contributing to public health on a very large scale in my case, through the development and manufacturing of vaccines.

This included other doctors, clinical trial experts, statisticians, and public health specialists like myself, who chose the path to industry to play a crucial role in the vaccines of today and those of the future.

I took the road less traveled  and it made all the difference

I faced that last fork in the road almost 20 years ago and in the meantime, have become Chief Medical Officer of the world’s largest vaccine company.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to take on a diversity of roles and I have been personally involved in bringing six new vaccines into the world – vaccines developed to help prevent rotavirus, pneumococcal disease, HPV (a cause of cervical and other cancers), herpes zoster (shingles), malaria, and a combination vaccine for measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella (chickenpox).

And, we are working on additional vaccines as we speak.

The impact of these vaccines is immense and global – in fact, almost 40% of the world’s children receive at least one of GSK’s vaccines.

For myself and many of my colleagues, going to industry meant taking a road less traveled in our profession, often against the advice of peers. But, for us, it has made all the difference.

We feel privileged to wake up each day and head to a job where we have a meaningful impact on the lives of the hundreds of millions of people who are receiving the vaccines that result from our work.

Lessons learned

  • There are many different directions you can follow as you build your career. It is not necessary to envision the end goal right from the beginning, what you discover on the way can direct you to new endeavors.
  •  Of course, there is nothing wrong in following a traditional career path; however, I encourage you to explore some detours on the way. 

Written by Thomas Breuer, MD MSc, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer GSK Vaccines.

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