Piotr Czerkies is a likeable Pole who took on the position of Director of the medical department at the Slovenian office of the innovative pharmaceutical company Novartis. When he started working in pharmaceutics he was sure it was a temporary engagement, but when he saw the influence and impact his work could have on people’s lives, he no longer wanted to leave. He was part of the revolution in organ transplantation that was brought about by effective immunosuppressive medications and when he speaks his wit and sense of humor are outshined only by his unfaltering dedication to his work.

What is your area of expertise and what is your job?

I told you this would not be a simple conversation. And here we are - I am already having trouble answering your first question. Before I joined the pharmaceutical company I was a rather successful researcher and university professor, so I can still claim some expertise in certain areas of fish biology. Over the past two decades I became a true pharmaceutical industry insider, gaining experience in a number of areas ranging from marketing and sales to physician training and clinical trials. Based on my local and regional experience I became an expert in transferring the outcomes of clinical trials into clinical practice in different therapeutic areas, including cardiology, immunology and organ transplantation.

How did you arrive to this point in your life?

To be honest this was not exactly planned. As a university professor in a time of social change I had trouble finding a balance between my work and my personal life. Deciding on making more time for family and finding greater financial security I transferred into pharmacy with the thought of it being a temporary solution. When I found out just how great an influence my work could have on people’s lives, I decided to pursue education and acquire knowledge and experience to be able to take on a position in the medical department. It was tough, but my dedication and passion did not go unnoticed at Novartis and they provided plenty of support in my efforts.

How does it feel to know your work influences people’s lives?

For me the feeling is, beside my family, my greatest source of energy and persistence. I am lucky to be able to work in one of the most innovative companies in the world that develops effective solutions for many medical needs and diseases. For example - I witnessed the dynamic evolution of organ transplantation that was enabled by effective suppressors of immune response. In fact I was more than a witness, I was part of the revolution as I helped raise awareness which directly contributed to increases in organ donation. Now we are bringing Slovenian patients a new treatment for heart disease that significantly reduces mortality and improves the quality of life. Our cooperation with the local medical community, based on education and not bound to any single medication, directly improves the level of care and management of patients. The fact that my work has a direct influence on improving the life of another person is a source of great pleasure and pride for me. On the other hand I also feel responsible for those patients that are still waiting for their opportunity and this gives me the strength to become an ambassador of their needs.

What did you want to become as a child?

You mean, beside a fireman, policeman, astronaut, race car driver, fighter pilot and rock star? The answer is - a surgeon. In primary school I had a nasty accident that resulted in me being bedridden for five long months. When I was brought to the ER doctors even considered amputating my leg, but a young and dedicated surgeon decided to try and save it. I will be eternally grateful to him for the fact that I can walk, run and even (badly, but enthusiastically) dance. The experience had a profound influence on my life because I read just about every book in the local library during my bed rest and decided to do something meaningful with my life.
In spite of everything I then chose biology to help protect the environment for future generations. But my inner “surgeon” was still hiding somewhere in the background and biding his time. The moment came when I was talking to Professor Zbigniew Religa, cardiac surgeon that performed the first successful heart transplant in Poland. This legendary man helped me realize how important an influence on the lives of people my work in the pharmaceutical industry could have.

What motivates you most in your work and life in general? Do you have a personal motto you adhere to?

Not really, except perhaps for the saying »Warto być przyzwoitym« (It is worthy to be decent) by Polish historian and resistance member from the 2nd World War Władysław Bartoszewski. In my personal life I am motivated by the happiness of my family, but in my work the patient is the focus. As long as there patients that I can help with my work, I will not lack motivation. I also love collaborating with people, communicating and interacting. I really like working in a team. In this sense I am very happy in Slovenia because I have the opportunity to work with truly wonderful people.

Which aspect of your work do you wish people knew more about? What is the most common misconception regarding your work?

There are quite a few myths regarding the pharmaceutical industry. Let’s be honest - it is not the most popular business in the world. But big pharma does not just mean big incomes. In fact it is much more about big efforts in developing medicines. We come into an environment with plenty of knowledge and will to cooperate in finding solutions for existing medical needs. We are not only suppliers of medicines, we supply solutions Our experience and knowledge can help the healthcare system improve its efficiency and optimize the distribution of resources. But in order for us to achieve this, society must see us as a serious partner and not as a medicine salesman interested only in profit.

Are you optimistic about the development and future of human health? Why? Which areas do you believe will see the greatest changes?

I would rather say I am a reserved optimist. In general terms medicine has advanced greatly over the past decades. We have a much better understanding of the human body and our new medicines are more specific, more targeted and more effective. The past two years have been exceptional for our company as we brought the first gene therapy in ophthalmology to market, as well as the first oncology therapy using the patient’s own gene modified immunity cells. We can also see many positive changes in health and healthy living awareness while reduced risk factors and advances in patient care are bringing extended life expectancy. There is also the increased presence of technology and telecommunications companies in healthcare, the onset of new devices and applications for monitoring personal activity and life functions and telehealth services are on the rise too. But at the same time we are also facing new challenges, such as a long-living society, environmental issues and increasing social pressure of health costs and we will need to address all of them systematically.

How do you see our society in a few decades and how will your current work contribute to our future society?

What we are researching at a basic level today will be accessible in twenty years. What we have already discovered and are currently testing will be available in ten years. We can expect that treatments will be better adapted to the needs of the individual, allowing for more accurate interventions that consider the clinical status and genome of the patient. The telehealth revolution will transform patient management and enable permanent supervision, remote health consultations and faster responses.
Our education programs already include certain elements that prepare healthcare professionals for the coming systemic changes in patient management and improve patient awareness so that they will be better prepared to participate in the process. We can expect better results when a better educated patient meets with a better educated physician. This is what I am working on.