Meet Leona Hamrick–PA, Medical Science Liaison and Doctor of Health Science

Dr. Leona Hamrick is a PA and Doctor of Health Science. She’s also a Medical Science Liason. In this article, she details her journey from clinician to scientist.

After almost 15 years in clinical practice, PA Hamrick knew she wanted to transition out of traditional medicine. She wasn’t sure what she wanted at the time but she knew a doctoral degree would open doors. She eventually decided on the DHSc or Doctor of Health Science.

“I didn’t intend to go into research so I didn’t see the need for a PhD. I wasn’t interested enough in education to pursue an EdD. The DHSc ticked all the boxes” says Dr. Hamrick. The Doctor of Medical Science (DMS/DMSc) wasn’t around at the time but she adds that she loves the concept of a doctoral degree by PAs for PAs

From PA to Doctor

Dr. Hamrick’s alma mater, Nova Southeastern University, describes the DHSc as capable of helping candidates build “stand-out academic credentials to lead hospitals, health systems, public agencies or pursue high-profile university professor or dean roles.” 

“I’ve been asked during many job interviews to describe my DHSc. My program expanded beyond clinical practice into economics, culture, medical/legal issues. I felt I gained a variety of experiences that broadened my understanding of management, education, and medicine.” Dr. Hamrick financed her doctorate with student loans and believes it was worth every penny. 

“My entire career changed post-doctorate. I worked as an internal medicine PA for 14 years before completing my DHSc. I then continued my practice but also joined the faculty of a local PA program. I was offered, and declined, 3 full-time teaching positions.”

She describes her post-doc prospects in a Goldilocks-sort of way: “I was very good at clinical medicine–my patients would follow me if I moved practices but it wasn’t quite the right fit. I was very good at education–my students loved me but it wasn’t quite the right fit for me either. Then I found it! I learned of medical science liaisons (MSLs).”

What is a Medical Science Liaison?

Medical Science Liaisons are the scientific experts in a particular field, be it pharmaceuticals, biotech, or medical devices. Dr. Hamrick describes it as both a work from home career as well as one with lots of travel. 

That was my career!” she says. “So, I bought the book “How to Become an MSL” and started applying.” She loves the ability to set her own schedule and travel when it works best for her and her family. 

How to Become a Medical Science Liaison

Breaking into the MSL field is a challenge, however. “Everybody wants to be an MSL! And by everybody I mean PharmDs, PhDs, MDs, PA-Cs, etc. Competition is fierce and new doctoral grads are not usually considered. Particularly new grads with the new(ish) DHSc.” says Dr. Hamrick. Job experience is practically a requirement for any medical science liaison position. Though an experienced clinician, she still found herself “throwing spaghetti at the wall”. 

A small diagnostics company out of Birmingham, Alabama took a chance on the new PA Doctor and it changed the trajectory of her career. “After 18 years in clinical medicine, I hung up my stethoscope and picked up a carry-on!” Dr. Hamrick exclaims. 

The Volatility of Biotechnology

Her first position as an MSL was short-lived, however. The small Alabama start-up went bankrupt just 9 months after she signed on. 

Dr. Hamrick’s current company requires her to be the scientific expert in a variety of therapeutic areas covering disruptive technologies. “It’s exciting and rewarding,” she says. “I feel like I move an even bigger needle in medicine now because I don’t just influence my patients, I share my knowledge on a broader level.” Since her first foray into the industry, she has focused her career on molecular genomics. 

Within 2 years of the career change, Dr. Hamrick was asked to be a subject matter expert with the MSL Society writing a standardized board exam for medical science liaisons across the globe. There is now a board certification for practicing MSLs, the MSL-BC. 

Working with Key Opinion Leaders

Associating with KOLs, or Key Opinion Leaders, is what being a medical science liaison is all about. Key opinion leaders could be physicians and PAs in clinical practice or researchers in academia. Dr. Hamrick notes that it’s not all about helping your company spread it’s message but it’s equally important to bring important scientific updates back to the company. 

What’s the difference between a medical science liaison and a salesperson? 

Depending on the field, there may be rules of conduct that bar an MSL from functioning like a salesman. “In pharma, there’s a firewall between us and sales” explains Dr. Hamrick. “You’re never in the same room at the same time.” That’s not always the case in other fields, however. In her current role, Dr. Hamrick works hand-in-hand with the sales team and even provides training from time to time. 

How much money does a medical science liaison make? 

The average base salary for a medical science liaison is about $167,000 a year. Unlike salespeople, or even PAs, MSLs are not paid based on production or quotas. Dr. Hamrick points out that they may still receive a bonus based on the overall performance of the company but that it’s not tied to the MSL personally. 

Where do medical science liaisons work?

According to MSL Society’s 2019 Compensation Survey, just under a third of medical science liaisons work in an oncology-related capacity while the next most common disciplines are neurology, rare diseases, and immunology. While over 85% of MSLs have a doctorate, Dr. Hamrick would fall into the 3% of MSLs with a non-PhD/PharmD/MD doctorate. 

What is the most important characteristic of a Medical Science Liaison? 

Besides being a subject matter expert, Dr. Hamrick says that emotional intelligence is a must. An effective medical science liaison can read the room and quickly transition between the clinical and the scientific aspects of their discipline. It also pays to be an extrovert. Medical science liaisons need to develop good relationships with all sorts of professionals including internal and external stakeholders. 

Should PAs move to an Entry-Level Doctorate?

While the DHSc catapulted her career forward, Dr. Hamrick isn’t so keen on the doctorate as an entry-level degree for PAs. She talks about how the DHSc didn’t necessarily improve her ability to practice internal medicine and how PAs should feel free to pursue a doctorate following their PA training, currently at the Master’s level. The first Doctor of Medical Science program, however, was designed to improve clinical acumen.

“I have not found anyone, to date, that opposes PAs gaining a doctorate. My physician supervisor gave me a raise when I completed my degree and would introduce me to our colleagues as Dr. Leona Hamrick, PA.”

Are Online Doctorates Any Good? 

“My program was online with a campus requirement each year. I believe, now more than ever, because of COVID-19, online is the way to go” explains Dr Hamrick. Online schooling requires a different level of discipline and Dr. Hamrick doesn’t believe her education suffered at all because of the online offering. “On the contrary, I think you have to try a bit harder in that environment. I did enjoy our campus requirement though. I met an amazing group of colleagues (mainly PAs) from around the USA–people who are leaders in our field.” 

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