About Peter Luongo, MD: Peter Luongo is JB Ashtin’s Vice President of Account Services and resident MD. With over 18 years of experience in the medical field, his diverse background consists of scientific direction, writing and strategy, marketing, training and development, and education. Dr. Luongo’s passion for education is evident in his interactions with staff and clients, and his commitment to fostering a culture reflective of JB Ashtin’s core values is evident in all he does.
Dr. Luongo earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame and his medical degree from the University of South Alabama College of Medicine. In addition, he holds a certification from the Wharton Essentials of Management Program from the University of Pennsylvania. According to Dr. Luongo, “While the story of medicine can be complicated, telling it doesn’t have to be.”
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have an overview of your professional background, and how you became involved in the medical communication industry?
[Dr. Luongo] I am a physician by training and completed one year of internal medicine residency. Although I enjoyed working with patients, I was not sure that clinical medicine was the career path I wanted to pursue. Therefore, I explored several other opportunities within the healthcare industry and joined Eli Lilly and Company as a medical science liaison, or MSL. My specific area of therapeutic expertise was diabetes. This position was my entrée into the pharmaceutical industry.
I worked as an MSL for several years and then transitioned into the marketing arena. During my tenure in marketing, I was introduced to promotional medical communications and medical education. I became intrigued about how important storytelling in healthcare communications was, not only to healthcare providers, but also to the patients they treat. I made the transition into the medical communications industry on the advice of one of my supervisors who had come from an agency to the pharmaceutical company for whom we worked. For me, the transition was a great decision, given my science and marketing background, and my predilection for storytelling and communicating.
Over the last 10 years I’ve spent much of my time in either healthcare education or medical communications in the agency setting.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your work includes translating clinical data and scientific information into marketing and educational messages for both healthcare professionals and patients. Can you talk about the different approaches you might employ in the development of marketing and educational content in the health care arena? How do marketing and educational content for the health care industry differ from each other?
[Dr. Luongo] In general, marketing and educational pieces utilize the same approaches, but with different execution. There are nuances and differences in language and creative tactics to address each. Promotional pieces have a different look and feel from purely educational pieces. Promotional medical education is generally marketing driven and educates prescribers on the benefits of a company’s or client’s brand. Educational content, on the other hand, can be nonbranded, truly disease-state focused, and not necessarily presented on behalf of a marketing team or overseen by a marketing division. So, whether you’re developing promotional medical education or truly educational, nonpromotional content, you are striving to tell a patient-centered story.
What we do as medical communicators almost always involves telling a story about patients’ diseases, their unmet needs, and their need for better options to treat their specific ailment. No matter the tone of the piece, the audience who will read the piece, or the purpose of the piece, the story is the important component. The stories involve similar things—identifying a problem and offering a solution that may result in a better outcome for the patient. Our goal as medical communicators is to tell a compelling enough story about a specific solution that prescribers and other healthcare professionals will consider a new approach when treating their patients.
Nowadays, people want information on demand that is presented in short, digestible bits. This is just as true for healthcare providers as it is for the patients they treat. Think YouTube and apps that provide information to people in shorter formats. I’ve always found video particularly compelling, especially when thought leaders or experts in a particular field can be relied on to help convey an exciting story that explains the benefits of a specific drug or medical device. As our technologies advance, I envision that we will more readily add to our stories using 3-D visuals and interactive graphics, possibly via virtual reality or other interactive technologies. We will be able to literally make patients’ conditions and their struggles come alive for healthcare providers, which will allow their stories to be more relatable and impactful, resulting in better care.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What have been some of the most rewarding projects you have worked on during the course of your career? How do these projects illustrate the underpinning principles around both patient and provider-centered medical communication?
[Dr. Luongo] A few years ago, my team and I developed and launched a nonbranded disease state Internet site that was patient focused on every level. It provided a unique opportunity for us to talk about diabetes in general and educate patients on the different approaches available to treating Type 1 Diabetes. That was a very rewarding educational project because the content was developed and presented in nontechnical terms in a tone and reading level geared exclusively for the patient. Patients should always be considered an important part of the discussion, and communication strategies should include ways to inform them of potential new approaches to treat their conditions and to provide needed information to empower them to have conversations with their healthcare providers on how best to treat their diseases.
One of the things I enjoy most is the opportunity to interact with healthcare providers and help them understand how patients experience their disease. In a previous role while I was working in the rheumatoid arthritis disease state, we gave healthcare providers the opportunity to wear specially designed gloves or interact with other devices created specifically to mimic rheumatoid arthritis discomfort just so healthcare providers could experience how difficult it could be when a patient’s flare-up occurred. The healthcare providers who participated were amazed at just how debilitating the flare-up could be, and the experience gave them a greater appreciation for difficulties their patients experience.
At my current company, JB Ashtin, we developed a virtual reality program to help healthcare providers understand some of the challenges facing adult patients with undiagnosed ADHD. The scenario was presented in a day-in-the-life-of format from the perspective of a woman who had a busy family life in addition to an active career. Healthcare professionals who treated patients with ADHD but did not have ADHD themselves were amazed how debilitating the condition could be.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you elaborate on why medical communication requires a multimodal approach?
[Dr. Luongo] As communicators, we all need to be flexible and sensitive to the needs of our audiences. This is especially true in medical communication. You need to be able to tell your story across different modalities. If we use video, is 3 minutes long enough to educate someone on a particular topic? Do we want a medical expert to present the information? Would it be better to tell our client’s story via a slide deck? Maybe a scientific monograph is more appropriate to disseminate information. The ability to be flexible and adapt well to ever-changing client needs and offer them ever-changing technology to help them to present a unique, creative story are concepts that people entering the medical communication field need to understand and embrace. It is incredibility important to take a client’s vision and help him or her translate it into an informative and original design that will speak to physicians and patients alike—one that will resonate with them on many levels.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Can you talk about a project you’ve been involved in where the communication became more effective when shifting from reporting to storytelling?
[Dr. Luongo] We were asked to develop a slide deck that would be presented at a meeting that would be attended by several physicians. The basic premise of the meeting was to educate this group on a particular disease state that had unmet needs. The meeting wasn’t focused on promoting any particular product, it was simply about the disease state and educating physicians on important considerations needed when treating patients with the disease.
We wanted to think about how to make the story more impactful because a 40-slide PowerPoint presentation is not particularly engaging. We could use good visuals to enable a more creative approach to enhance the story, but we wanted to make the story more meaningful, and a straightforward PowerPoint presentation wouldn’t give us that opportunity.
We presented our client with ways we could incorporate patient vignettes and case studies into the presentation. That’s actually a very common strategy that we employ all the time; being able to relate to patients and their needs is, in essence, the most important thing you can do in any medical communications scenario. Several different topics were addressed in this presentation; we used a patient vignette to make each problem more relatable to the audience and to highlight potential solutions. The patient’s needs framed our presentation rather than the science, which is an important nuance. Additionally, we created infographics to summarize each topic so that key messages could be delivered efficiently and memorably. A little creativity and a focus on the patient made a big difference in that presentation.
This was one of the more innovative slide decks I’ve worked on. It was a typical request and we used it as an opportunity to innovate and explore new ways to tell a more powerful patient-centered story.
Graphical abstracts are visual aids that condense and explain complicated concepts or deliver important information in medicine. They are now being included as adjunct pieces in medical journal articles and provide cogent overviews of the basic content of the article—even the staid FDA is beginning to use graphical abstracts to explain some of its policies and procedures to further educate the medical community or the general public. We have created several graphical abstracts for clients that have been very successful. Visuals are fast becoming an important mainstream storytelling device.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What should people who are new to medical communications look for when interviewing for a position at an agency?
[Dr. Luongo] First, before you start interviewing, do some online research on the companies you are interested in applying to. Become familiar with each company’s services and get a feel for its culture. Check out each company’s website, Facebook page, and its social media outlets. See if you can find both positive and negative comments from the agency’s clients. Check out how employees rate their company. Some websites to consult are Glassdoor, Indeed, and Vault. Remember that while online research is helpful, it doesn’t always give the most accurate information about a prospective employer. Most of us who are satisfied customers don’t typically write reviews. Personally, I have to be really happy or really disappointed to go to Google and write a review about a company. So, be cognizant of inherent bias. Use some common sense to sift through the data you come across.
When you start to interview, you will want to determine if the agency you are interviewing with fosters a collaborative environment. At JB Ashtin, we try to engage the entire team in both the planning and the execution of a particular project. We want everybody involved, we want to gain each person’s insights—to the extent that they are comfortable and equipped to do so. We want team members to be feel empowered throughout the project development process, to not only execute the work as assigned, but also provide input into the work and offer suggestions and alternative approaches that might guide us to prepare a better deliverable for the client.
Collaborative environments are especially important in the agency setting because agency life is high pressure and at times can be intense. If teams are working together, not against each other, a more enjoyable experience will be had by all. My team and my organization have a real esprit de corps when it comes to handing the deadlines and demands that we face. When the team is engaged, empowered, and involved, each member takes ownership of the work, which is critical. Our team members take joy and have feelings of great satisfaction in helping clients achieve their goals, which subsequently contributes to better patient outcomes.
Unfortunately, employees in medical communications agencies often feel they are simply cogs in a big wheel and are counted on to produce content, and content only. This is especially true for medical writers. You go to work, you write, you meet your deadlines, you move on to the next project. At JB Ashtin, we don’t want our team members to feel that way; we want them to be involved in the strategic planning of the project and to feel engaged throughout.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For medical communication professionals who are interviewing at different companies, what advice do you have in terms of putting their best foot forward? On a related note, what can candidates learn about a prospective medical communication company through their in-person interview?
[Dr. Luongo] During interviews you need to ask appropriate, thoughtful, and researched questions. Asking a potential employer about work/life balance is a red herring. Work/life balance when considered in terms of time is less possible as you take on greater responsibilities in your career. One of my colleagues contributed to a “Women in Science” blog for JB Ashtin in which she wisely stated that finding harmony rather than balance is key to satisfaction in a career. Today, nothing could be truer.
When someone is going through an in-person interview, he or she can easily get a sense of the level of intensity among the staff or a perception of tension in the working environment. People who interview with us and are subsequently hired tell us that we have a good vibe at the outset and that it’s evident that our team not only cooperates very well but that we truly like each other. We’re certainly transparent when we interview, especially with those who are new to the medical communications industry. There are demands that have to be met—it’s a deadline-driven business after all, and it’s not going to be easy sometimes, but cooperation is the key to reaching our goals as well as those of our clients.
If you’re interviewing, it’s important to ask questions, especially of the nonsupervisory staff. If you have the opportunity to interview with potential team members, ask them what the work environment is like. Ask direct and specific questions. You will be surprised how much you will discover.
Some questions interviewees can ask are: Do people get along? Will they involve me in the planning process? Will I be actively engaged throughout the project? Personally, I like when interviewees ask me how we organize our teams and execute our work. It tells me they want to be an active part of the process.
If you’re interviewing for a position as a medical writer, ask the employer how the work gets done. Do the writers talk to clients? Do writers interact with the people who are providing direction? Do writers get to be part of planning meetings, or do writers just simply write? Try to ask those questions specifically of a peer, especially if you are able to have lunch or coffee with them.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Throughout your professional journey, what skills and knowledge have helped you the most in your career and how did you build this toolkit?
[Dr. Luongo] One of the most important things that you have to develop is the ability to think strategically. What’s difficult about strategic thinking is that it’s somewhat nebulous and difficult to define. We ask our teams to be more strategic and clients ask us to be strategic, but it’s difficult to articulate exactly what that means. I think most people have the ability to think strategically, but it has to be developed, just like any other skill. Those who have the ability to think strategically can step out of a given situation and look at it from a higher level.
Honing this ability to think strategically is critical. Often one is able to learn from others who are more experienced. I believe it’s a leader’s responsibility to provide examples to the team, to teach them about strategic thinking, and to stress how important it is to proactively plan before starting the work. One of the worst things you could do is to start a project without a plan or not have some kind of an outline addressing how to approach the project.
In the medical communications industry, you must be flexible. You have to be able to do multiple things at once. There are days when you are working on one project for one client and you suddenly receive an email from another client requesting that urgent changes be made to a project you thought you completed last week. Your challenge is to switch gears and handle the request. You learn how to process the occasional urgent requests or adapt to unexpected changes then move on to the next project. There’s no training that can teach you that skill; you need experience. I do stress this concept with interviewees; they will need to be flexible and be able to accept changes that occur in their daily schedules to survive in this business.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How much of your current toolkit of professional skills was the result of academic training, versus on-the-job experience?
[Dr. Luongo] My academic training (undergraduate and graduate) taught me critical thinking skills and provided me with the strong scientific foundation I need today to quickly learn about new disease states and therapeutic approaches to treat those diseases. If a project requires me to become familiar with a disease state that I haven’t dealt with in a long time or learn how a new drug might work to treat the disease, I can figure it out quickly.
It can be advantageous for people entering our industry to start out in a larger company before going the medical communication route because a lot of large companies offer all kinds of great classes. For example, I started at Eli Lilly and went through their critical thinking classes, among others. That company made an investment in me that I appreciate to this day. The classes helped me become a better professional and a more capable marketer and communicator.
I also found opportunities to increase my education level on my own through books, online classes, videos, and really anything that would help me learn. Certainly, seeking out other professionals who have experience in the industry and asking for their advice is a great way to learn. You’ve got to be proactive and seek out opportunities.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Who have been your primary professional mentors throughout your career in medical communication? How have they supported your development? How important do you feel mentorship is to career growth?
[Dr. Luongo] In general, your immediate supervisors are certainly going to be key in teaching you about the job and how to do the job. Your peers are going to be really helpful too. Some of the best teachers and mentors I’ve had have been higher-level leaders with whom I’ve worked. My current CEO started the company 20 years ago and I learn from her every day.
In large organizations there are formalized mentorship programs; at JB Ashtin we are informal, but we constantly talk about mentorship as a leadership team. We all mentor our junior staff. We spend time with them and teach them what they need to know to become successful. It makes a difference when the leaders in the company take an active role in an employee’s development. You will want to work for a company where mentorship is part of the culture.
Mentors are a helpful resource because they guide you in your own career path and are genuinely interested in your professional development. They can help you better understand how to do your work and perform your responsibilities at a higher level.
Volunteering for opportunities available in the organization is a great way to connect with the leadership team and offers you another opportunity to learn. At JB Ashtin we’re focused on work, but we also provide the opportunity to take part in internal initiatives to help improve our business. You might take on a leadership role in that way. Early in my career, I was lucky to have a chance to lead a team that was building a training and onboarding program for new medical science liaisons. It taught me so much, exposed me to the marketing team, and launched my career as a communicator. You need to advocate for your own development. I think that’s critical, if you don’t ask questions, don’t volunteer, and don’t speak up, you’re going to miss an important opportunity. Remember, fortune favors the bold!
[MastersinCommunications.com] How would you advise other professionals in medical communication to stay apprised of developments in the field?
[Dr. Luongo] Once in the medical communication industry, you’re going to be working on particular disease states, and you’ll need to stay up-to-date with the latest information. Personally, news aggregator sites help me to stay apprised of recent, more general developments. I’ve worked in diabetes a good part of my career and I’m always staying up-to-date, either by proactively searching the literature, viewing news aggregator sites, or receiving subscription information in my inbox that keeps me apprised of the latest studies. Second, Medscape and similar sites provide health sciences headlines, as well as more detailed content.
It’s important to be aware of industry trends, especially for our clients. We never want to miss an opportunity to understand their challenges and offer potential solutions. We follow news sites that are focused on the pharmaceutical industry; we need to know if there’s been a corporate merger or if a specific treatment doesn’t get approved by the FDA. A pursual of corporate websites will keep you up to date with their news. What these companies are doing impacts the work that you’ll ultimately be doing for them when they are clients.
It’s easy to access the information, but it’s time that you have to commit to, and it needs to be a part of your daily duties to ensure that you’re up-to-date. I probably spend on average an hour a day. Oftentimes I’ll start my day by looking for general information about our clients or prospective clients to see what’s happening in their world. I might look into the latest articles on disease states for my clients’ projects so that we can be proactive in offering solutions to their problems.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What have been some of the most helpful resources and networks for you in your professional experience? What communities and resources would you recommend others leverage, either while in school or working in the industry?
[Dr. Luongo] There are two key organizations that we rely on in medical communication. The International Society for Medical Publications Professionals (ISMPP) provides a lot of content that’s educational. They have an annual meeting and discuss what’s new in the industry. ISMPP offers Certified Medical Publications Professional (CMPP) certification that is available to those who have been employed in the medical communication industry for two years.
The other organization is the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). This association provides education and the latest information on best practices. They offer a variety of continuing education resources throughout the year and have a major conference annually.
If readers are thinking about medical communication as a career, these two resources are a great place to get information on the business. Many of our writers are members of ISMPP and AMWA, and several are Certified Medical Publication Professionals. It’s important that our clients realize that we have that kind of expertise and are willing to undergo continuing education in our field.
MedComms Networking is a site that offers training and networking opportunities. There are other online communities that can help people learn about the industry. You just need to take a little time and find them.
Certain industry publications are helpful as well. PharmaVOICE and Medical, Marketing and Media are two examples. These publications are a little more industry focused, but they oftentimes have articles that talk about best practices in communications.
To figure out ones’ passion is a daunting task. Many people have helped me to explore and understand options open to me, so I’m very happy to help others as well. Your audience is welcome to contact me for more information. After all, networking is a critical skill in any industry.
Thank you, Dr. Luongo, for your excellent insight and advice regarding the field of medical communication!