Pharmaceutical Product Managers’ Unique Roles and Responsibilities

What All Industries Expect from Their Product Managers

Whether the industry is pharmaceuticals, furniture, or food, product managers representing all types of products share a few common high-level responsibilities. They develop a strategic direction and drive the development of their companies’ products. The product manager ultimately owns the product’s success or failure in the market. A Pharmaceutical Product Manager would include these responsibilities as well.

Most product managers’ job descriptions include at least some of the same roles and tasks. A few examples:

Conducting research

A product manager needs to stay up to date. That is to say, studying current market trends, personas, and competitors. This also means they must analyze usage data and customer feedback from existing products. They do all this to know which product to focus on next or where to take an existing product.

Developing a strategy

Product managers take the knowledge they gain from their research and apply those learnings to crafting a high-level strategic plan. This strategy will include the market and persona the product will serve and how it will solve that market’s specific challenges—a high-level overview of the product itself. Also, roughly when the team will have a working version ready for the market.

Communicating plans

The product manager maps out the product’s strategic goals, priorities, and plans. The next step will be to translate this information into a format they can communicate across the organization. This includes developers, the sales and marketing teams, and any executives or investors who will need to sign off on the plan. The product manager’s strategic tool to capture this plan and share it with the cross-functional team is the product roadmap.

Coordinating development

If the stakeholders approve the product’s plan, the product manager will then take the strategic lead in moving forward with the development. First, this will involve pulling together the various teams. Secondly, product managers ensure everyone shares the same understanding of the plan and goals. Lastly, they help the teams build their own execution plans.

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What’s Unique About the Pharmaceutical Product Manager’s Role?

All these responsibilities apply to product managers in the pharmaceutical industry. The job description for a pharma product manager has some unique traits of its own. Pharmaceuticals have several characteristics that most other industries’ products do not.

1. It (usually) requires technical expertise.

We’ve posed this question at the ProductPlan blog: Does a product manager need to be technical? Our answer, even for most technology companies, is no. Yes, a technical background can serve a product manager well, especially in a company building technical products such as consumer electronics or SaaS apps. Any product manager should have at least a high-level understanding of how the engineering team builds its products.

But in most cases, a product manager does not need technical skills or technical background to be effective in the role. A consumer electronics product manager doesn’t need to know how to build a Bluetooth speaker or a computer tablet. A SaaS product manager won’t need to code features or fix bugs in the company’s app.

The pharmaceutical industry, however, is one of the exceptions to this rule. Many pharma product roles require the product manager to have strong knowledge of the details of developing a drug. Many of these roles’ job descriptions include directing the formulation of new pharmaceuticals. As well as overseeing technicians and researchers.

In fact, many product roles in the pharmaceutical industry have more technical titles—for example, Scientific Product Manager, Drug Discovery Product Manager, and Pharmacy Product Solutions Manager. The responsibilities listed in these roles overlap with common product management tasks in other industries: conducting research, planning product strategy, coordinating with other teams, etc. But many pharmaceutical companies expect their product managers to take a more hands-on role in the technical development of their products.

This is why you’ll find most pharmaceutical product management job descriptions asking for a degree or equivalent work experience in the sciences, technology, or healthcare.
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2. It involves a great deal of regulatory work.

Most industries are regulated to some degree by federal and state laws. Toymakers, for example, must build products using materials free of hazardous substances. Choking-hazard guidelines also state that if they build toys for children under a certain age, these manufacturers may not include parts smaller than a specific size.

Product managers overseeing any product—physical goods such as toys and even digital products like an app—all have some responsibility to know the industry’s laws and regulatory guidelines.

But because healthcare is one of the two most heavily regulated industries (the other is financial services), product managers in this field will find far more of their role revolves around regulatory compliance.

Many pharmaceutical product managers are responsible for overseeing their companies’ communications with regulators regarding every stage of their drugs’ progress. Just some of the responsibilities you’ll find in a typical pharmaceutical product manager job description include filing documentation with the FDA for:

  • Investigational New Drug (IND) Application

  • Abbreviated New Drug Application (ANDA)

  • Establishment License Application

  • Briefing Package

  • Drug Master Files

  • Biologics License Application (BLA)

Completing these applications and other filings requires coordination with a large cross-functional team: physicians, clinical researchers, technicians, company executives, etc. Pharmaceutical product managers are often responsible for driving this complicated and time-consuming process.

Pharma companies also face strict regulations when working with Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API) suppliers. These are the organizations that manufacture the specific ingredients that comprise the drug company’s final product. The product manager’s role also includes working closely with these companies to ensure their operations and processes are up to the highest quality standards.

In fact, a pharma product manager needs a thorough understanding of the entire regulatory process required to shepherd a drug from concept to clinical research trials, launch, and market the product to the medical community and the general public.

As you can see, regulatory compliance makes up a significant portion of a pharma product manager’s role—more so than it does in most other industries.

3. It’s largely a marketing position.

Product managers in the drug industry work extremely closely with the marketing team. Even though the role is often technical and involves close coordination with the research and engineering teams, pharmaceutical companies also often expect their product managers to develop the language, positioning, and even strategy to support the marketing efforts for their new drugs. In fact, you will often find that the pharma product manager’s role reports to the marketing team—not a standalone product department.

Here’s why this makes sense. In developing strategies and research programs for new pharmaceuticals, the product manager works closely with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) throughout the industry. These can be doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, healthcare analysts, clinical researchers, even the heads of patient advocacy groups.

In other words, the pharma product manager gains a strong sense of what the medical community wants and needs in terms of new drugs and how that community views the current healthcare priorities, challenges, and opportunities. The pharmaceutical company views its product managers as uniquely positioned to understand the right marketing messaging and channels that will lead to product success on the market.

4. It can literally mean the difference between life and death.

If you’re the product manager responsible for a product that flops, it can feel like the end of the world. (Or at least the end of your career.) But in most cases, no matter how badly your product performs on the market, its failure won’t lead directly to people dying.

And this is perhaps the most significant difference between the pharmaceutical-industry product manager and product managers in almost any other industry. Many of the drugs these companies produce do mean the difference between life and death. That’s why pharma companies develop them in the first place.

So pharma product managers face additional pressures that product professionals in most industries do not. Consider just a couple of ways failure in this field can lead to real human suffering.

  • A new pharmaceutical product fails to earn regulatory approval due to a setback in the company’s process or a paperwork error. As a result of the delay, people die.
  • The marketing message for a new drug is misinterpreted by the medical community and given to an at-risk segment of its intended patient population. Those prescriptions lead to suffering or even death.

All of which is to say that pharmaceutical product managers perform an essential function in society. The products they’ve ushered into the market have helped to save and prolong billions of lives. They’re under a great deal of pressure to do their jobs well. And we owe them a debt of gratitude.
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