- 9 months ago
29 March 2023
When it comes to thinking differently, Dr Jamshed Ahmed stands out from the pack. Perhaps it is the extraordinary diversity in his cultural background, or just being born with a curious mind, but there can be no doubt that when looking to solve problems, Dr Ahmed both thinks and looks outside the box.
“I’ve stood in the shadow of giants in terms of innovation in medicine,” he says, recalling his early years in Bangladesh where he was born into a family of renowned obstetricians and gynaecologists before moving to the UK at age five.
When he first left school, Dr Ahmed studied aeronautical engineering, sparking a lifelong interest in space before transferring to his initial interest in medicine where he followed the family line by specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology – something he attributes less to familial influences and more to a desire to “make a difference in real-time”.
And make a difference he did, kicking off his career as a registrar working for the now-famous medical team that successfully delivered the world’s first IVF baby in Louise Brown. Dr Ahmed was sitting on the cusp of history and global innovation – and he loved it.
“That was the moment when the germ of innovation took hold, challenging the status quo and going anti-establishment,” he recalls, clearly chuffed at having been so close to such a pivotal time in medicine that has since changed the course of so many lives.
From London to Adelaide
But here is a soul who craves new knowledge and experiences, a career detour leading him into the world of investment banking where Dr Ahmed found the juxtaposition of risk management and opportunity not just added another string to his bow, but further fed his curiosity for innovation.
That led him into the world of pharmaceuticals, initially working with an independent team of clinicians looking to repurpose an AstraZeneca drug for use in reproduction, combining his medical training with drug development and market access.
“It showed me innovation combined with the power of collaboration, while ideation brought it all to fruition,” he said. “It was a group of people saying, how can we make this work for patients?”
At this point in his career, Dr Ahmed felt the piece missing from his kaleidoscope of experiences was health economics, so he moved his family to Adelaide for a job with Wyeth (now Pfizer) where he worked with then PBAC chair and industry legend Lloyd Samson.
“We had biotechnology drugs coming through in rheumatoid arthritis and the Government didn’t know how to assess or value them,” Dr Ahmed says. “I learned by iteration, working with patient advocacy groups and the doctors to try and understand their issues, while we didn’t have an adversarial relationship with the payer.
“There was uncertainty, so we worked with them on managing that uncertainty. Lloyd would say, these are your issues. Come to me with potential solutions.”
At that stage, medicine was all about population health, but the healthcare landscape was quickly evolving and Dr Ahmed was turning his attention to the new field of precision medicine and its ability to treat rare disease.
“You are moving to high value medicines with specific populations, which is more complex because it’s more than just the drug – you’ve got biomarkers, imaging, diagnostics,” he says. “This attracted me to companies working in that area, which led me to Sanofi Genzyme.”
The Life Saving Drugs Program (LSDP) was just kicking off in Australia and Genzyme’s ultra rare disease portfolio, coupled with the Government’s interest in finding value in medicines, meant Dr Ahmed once found himself collaborating with stakeholders to get medicines to patients.
A diverse and varied career
Since Genzyme, Dr Ahmed’s career experiences include working for the likes of iNova, 3M Innovation and Novo Nordisk, but this patchwork of unique experiences has perhaps never been valued so highly as it is at Merck Healthcare, which he joined in 2020 as Medical Director, recently also taking on the title of Innovation Lead.
Merck works across both broad and niche therapeutic areas, while it also has a life sciences business where, for example, the company makes the liquid nanoparticles that keep mRNA vaccines stable.
“Working for a science and technology company allows you to learn from the different aspects of the business as the cross-flow of ideas and collaboration is encouraged,” Dr Ahmed says.
“We have new medicines in oncology, a position in multiple sclerosis and market leadership in infertility, which is my background, so a bit of everything.
“Genzyme taught me the importance of meeting unmet need and at Merck, we try and think differently by targeting smaller patient populations where you can make a real difference.
“Merck has a very bright Head of R&D in Danny Bar-Zohar who thinks in platforms, not drugs, while Merck also tends to de-risk its business through collaborations. It works with start-ups, while we also have a long-term relationship with the European Space Agency.”
The future of healthcare
Having now spent decades in the healthcare sector in the UK and Australia, Dr Ahmed sees it as fragmenting but at a pivotal point in time. The key to unlocking better patient outcomes will not just come from healthcare but beyond it, he says, as digital records, biomarker imaging, and patient-reported outcomes change the future – and how Australia values medicines needs to change with it.
“What I’ve learned from a lot of very bright people is that you need to show the value of your medicine,” he says. “What is the value to the community? When you look at NDIS spending, say for multiple sclerosis, what’s the value of treating someone with MS compared with the $115,000 cost to care for them on the NDIS?
“We need to look at this with the TGA, patient advocacy groups, and politicians, and we need to look at other industries for the answers. I’ve learned a lot from other industries on how to get products and services seamlessly to patients and solutions to government, but we have to partner with the right people.
“The Federal Government is taking a long-term view about delivering healthcare as part of a healthy economy, and I truly believe we are moving from response and recovery in Covid to much more preventative thinking. Alliances in defence, space and technology, and food biosecurity all point to an ecosystem of cross-pollination in thinking.
“Everyone thinks innovation is about creative ideas but it is actually the reverse. It is about discipline. Engineering gave me the discipline framework while I also did Six Sigma Green and Black belts to give me the rigour. Innovation is either incremental or radical, iterative or disruptive. What is innovation is probably discussed more in Merck than anywhere else I know of.”
Dr Ahmed said the question Australia now needs to answer is, what does it want to be?
“Twenty years ago, we wanted to be the Clever Country, and now we have the chance to become the Clever Country in digital health through AI,” he says. “Covid has been a catalyst for change, bringing telemedicine, for example, which in itself leads to solutions.
“I’m learning all the time, from fintech and digital tech people, and these industries are moving into healthcare and seeing the drug as a commodity, not necessarily in the cheap sense, but as a foundation for an ecosystem. People are looking at the value chain, at the option for drone delivery or data collection through smart phones.
“I’m learning by doing and literally spending my time with people who really float my boat to try and incorporate different thinking into my own discipline so I stay relevant. Getting outside the bubble is hard and it’s risky, but it’s also so enjoyable.”