Reaching Into the Life of a Clinical Trials Professional Working in Asia

November 5, 2008
Kerri Nelen

Applied Clinical Trials

An interview with Edward Stewart Geary, MD, Applied Clinical Trials Editorial Advisory Board Member and vice president and global safety officer of Tokyo-based Eisai Co., unveils the truths of working as a life sciences professional in Asia.

Q: In the salary survey, Asia came in second to last place for world regions with the highest salary ($58,214), right behind Eastern Europe ($57,857). [Western Europe came in first, then the US]. Why do you think clinical trials professionals in Asia are earning so much less than their U.S. and European counterparts?

A: I think the correct comparison is salaries relative to some local benchmark because living expenses vary quite a bit both within “Asia” (think of Singapore compared to Indonesia) and relative to the US or Europe. I live in Japan where salaries are higher than described above, but when I visit colleagues working in countries like the Philippines or Malaysia, several aspects of their lifestyles (household help, drivers, etc.) are unattainable for most of us elsewhere.

Q: In terms of cost of living, what would you say is the average price of a house nowadays in your area and in which area are you currently living?

A: I live in Tokyo and I would estimate that people with good jobs such as those in our industry typically live in apartments or houses that cost the equivalent

of $600,000 or more to buy and $2500 or more a month to rent.

Q: What are some things that stand out in your mind in terms of the difference between working in the United States in our profession [I believe you were in California for a while] and working in Asia?

A: We work long hours in Asia and if our work involves coordination with colleagues in the US or Europe there are many teleconferences at odd hours. We are more likely to have several different roles in the company (e.g. be in charge of Regulatory and Pharmacovigilance and Medical Affairs) at the same time and the boundaries of job descriptions are often porous. This is especially true for physicians working in the pharmaceutical industry in Asia.

Q: Is housing easy to come by?

A: I don’t think there is a single answer for Asia just as there is no single answer for a place as diverse as the US. There are two housing markets in Japan. An extremely expensive market for expats with apartments that look like they were transplanted from the best condos in the US, and a market for everyone else which is centered on much smaller living spaces but is cheaper to rent than most big US cities. Both markets have high moving costs because 3-5 months rent is required in various fees to start a new rental contract, but it is relatively easy to find a place to live.

Q: Is there an allure to Asia for clinical trials professionals?

A: There should be! Besides the allure of Asia itself, this is where you can find relatively untreated patient populations, motivated Investigators, and the thrill of doing new things for the first time. That brings with it the frustration of doing new things for the first time but I think you can gain experience more quickly in Asia than in more established markets. Japan presents its own challenges as clinical development is not new here and the structure of the medical system makes it difficult to motivate Investigators, but I think working with Japanese colleagues is extremely rewarding.

Q: From what you know, would you say that clinical trials professionals in this area really are making so much less?

A: In comparison with local salaries I don’t think they are making less. I suspect there is also a higher yearly salary increase in the countries behind the figure quoted above (not Japan) than one can expect in the US or Western Europe.

Q: What’s it like working in Asia? 

A: This is an extremely diverse place but working in clinical development in Asia you are likely to live in a large city like Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore or Shanghai that has the same shopping malls, and many of the same fast food franchises as New York, London and Paris. There is a large diversity in the quality of medical facilities in a single country but if your work is in clinical development it will focus on the better hospitals with relatively high standards of care. Because of that work in clinical development here shares a lot of similarities with the US and Europe, but because the details of how people think about medicine are different (here and everywhere else) you have to do a lot of “translation” of goals and purposes as well as words in order to successfully perform GCP studies.

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