Interviewed by Alison Oates
Meet our Member, Elke Grooten, Head EU Relations at Novartis. In this interview, Elkeshares with us her insights on the impact the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare systems, how the crisis has transformed the pharmaceutical industry and tells us why it is important to be optimistic about the future.
You are currently Head EU Relations for Novartis. What does your job entail and what do you enjoy most about it?
I currently work as the Head EU Relations at Novartis, a pharmaceutical company and a market leader in Europe for innovative medicines as well as generic and biosimilar medicines. We also have a huge footprint in Europe on Research and Development activities as well as manufacturing and supply. My job is to represent the company to EU institutions - the European Commission, Parliament and Council – as well as to define our strategy alongside different trade associations and stakeholders.
I really love my job! I always say that Novartis is full of smart people and that I’m able to learn every day in this company, even more so because I also work with great experts in Brussels.
Throughout your career you have had extensive experience within the pharmaceutical sector. How has this sector changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and what are your predictions for the future?
On a personal level, since I really enjoy working with people, I miss having more human interactions. When it comes to the pharmaceutical sector, COVID-19 has definitely been a stress-test on healthcare systems and companies like Novartis. We have had to find collaborative solutions in cooperation with the European Institutions to continue our operations. Supplying medicines at a time when borders were closing and conducting clinical trials during national lockdowns has been a challenge.
COVID-19 has forced us to be better and more efficient. We have also been able to reduce some of the administrative “red tape”, giving us more flexibility in regulatory processes within the pharmaceutical sector. For the future, I am optimistic. Never before have we seen such collaboration between different organisations: we have already approved several vaccines which is incredible!
COVID-19 has forced us to be better…
Never before have we seen such collaboration
between different organisations
Improving access to healthcare is a topic very close to your heart. What are your views on why health systems across the world have struggled to cope with COVID-19, and what more can be done going forwards?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely stressful for healthcare systems. Firstly, we can see across Europe that countries with strong digital infrastructures have responded better to the health crisis, and at the same time, countries which did not previously develop their digital health infrastructure have found themselves less well-equipped to deal with the pandemic. In Europe we need to see a more coordinated approach to digitalising healthcare.
Secondly, healthcare professionals have had to prioritise COVID-19 patients when administering healthcare. I hope moving forward that we will create resilient systems that can deal with both pandemics and other illnesses.
Finally, I believe that we need to prioritise mental health in the future. Everybody has been impacted by this pandemic. Luckily, at Novartis, a great deal of attention is given to mental health, but we can all go further within our families, our friends and our communities.
I believe that we need to prioritise
mental health in the future.
Everyone has been impacted by this pandemic
As well as your academic background in Pharmaceutical Sciences, you have also studied Business Management and International Cooperation and Development. What made you so keen to study such different disciplines and what would you like to learn in the future?
I always knew, even as a child, that I wanted to go into the scientific field. I am also quite stubborn, and so I made sure throughout high school that I kept up my studies in Science and later, Pharmaceutical Sciences. Even though I was passionate about pharmaceuticals I could not see myself working in retail pharmacy, and so I decided to study Business Management in order to transfer my knowledge and skills to the private sector. A few years later, I joined Novartis.
Throughout my professional and private lives, I have always had two strong driving forces: global access to health and empowering individuals and communities. Because of this, I became very interested in geopolitics, international relations, cooperation and collaboration.
During the lockdown, I wanted to do more than I actually did! Having said that I did learn new digital skills, and also discovered a passion for Lego!
I have always had two strong driving forces:
global access to health and
empowering individuals and communities.
You are an alumna of the Free University of Brussels and, as you mentioned, you are passionate about empowering individuals, including through mentoring. What message do you have for young people during these turbulent times, particularly women who have been shown to have borne the brunt of the crisis?
When going through such turbulent times, it always helps to know what you want. Once you know what you want, you have to pursue it yourself - nobody will do it for you! That being said, I often say “No-one has ever accomplished anything alone”. Finding mentors, coaches and broadening your network is crucial. Networking is more important than ever and unfortunately many women, especially compared to men, are not comfortable networking. Women are extremely capable of networking for their children, their companies, their friends, however unfortunately we seem to find networking for ourselves embarrassing. Like I said, no-one can do it alone!
When going through such turbulent times,
it always helps to know what you want.
Once you know what you want,
you have to pursue it yourself - nobody will do it for you!
Your job must be quite time-consuming, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you balance work with your private life and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
COVID-19 has been difficult for everybody- let’s be honest, life was so much more fun before! I love music and dancing, and before COVID-19 I used to DJ in Brussels which I cannot do anymore. More than ever, I prioritise sleep. I make sure to get eight hours of sleep every night so that I can switch off and spend less time in front of a screen. Exercise is also very important, as well as, where possible, personal contact with friends and family.
Proust question: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I love people, and while I’m very proud of my career, I’m most proud and passionate about how I’ve empowered people.