Consulting- What Does it Take?

JANUARY 21, 2019
Heidi Moawad, MD
Physicians can often take on short-term consulting projects. Businesses such as pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers, investment firms, health insurance companies, and legal service providers work with physicians to obtain medical insight as they are developing strategies for their various projects.

Attorneys often need the input of physicians when it comes to figuring out the facts behind complex medical cases. And developers of new medical products need input regarding the fine details of how to make their product appealing for physicians.

These companies may not need — or be able to afford — a full time physician, and instead, seek the short-term services of physician consultants for highly specialized projects. In general, a company that needs physician input would refer to themselves as the client or company, while they would refer to the physician as the consultant or contractor. Consulting- What Does it Take?

When you are considering applying or accepting a consulting project, there are a few things to consider making sure the job is the right fit for you.

Network 

Physicians can find consulting options by networking and can even improve potential consulting options by sharing evaluations of client quality. This can be a challenge, as some doctors are understandably hesitant to share leads for fear of competition from other doctors. Yet overall, open dialogue can raise client standards when physicians look for a high level of professionalism in the companies they work with.

Department camaraderie, physician social media networks, professional meetings, and specialty associations are all great resources for finding opportunities and for evaluating the caliber of clients who request consulting services from physicians.

Ask the purpose or title of the project

Your input will be more valuable to your client if you understand the big picture, so ask about the objectives of the project to learn as much as you can in advance. 
In some situations, however, the company might not want to share the big picture or overarching purpose of the project with you.

If they are dealing with proprietary information, or if they want your insight to be as unbiased as possible, they may provide you with limited information to assure that their objectives are met. This is fine as long as you don’t have any concerns about your client’s honesty. 

Settle the payment 

It can be hard to estimate the time commitment when you are working on a new type of project, especially if you have not worked with the client before. For example, if you are reviewing a legal case, it can take anywhere between a few hours to tens of hours. Consider this variability when you are negotiating payment, and decide whether a project fee, an hourly rate, or a hybrid system works best. 

As with any business negotiation, supply and demand is the key to the reimbursement. If there are many doctors who would willingly take your place, you don’t have much room for negotiation. Yet, if you are highly specialized or experienced and tough to replace, the client might not want to lose you as a consultant. You are the only one who knows how much you want to take the project and you can gauge the degree to which the client wants you — so base your negotiation and compromises on that balance. 

Ask for sample reports 

When you are asked to provide a report, ask if you can see a model report for the format, they want you to follow. Ideally, if you review a sample or two ahead of time you can frame your own response based on the elements that your client considers important. This makes your report more valuable to your client and can save you time. 

Select your words carefully

Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want published. In some instances, your comments will be used as evidence to support a legal case, or may be used to provide guidance as a team defines the value of a pharmaceutical product. Be very careful about your words, both written and spoken. You might be quoted over and over again, and sometimes your words may be misinterpreted. 

For example, if you say that a disease complication “Isn’t a major concern”, this can be interpreted as “This doctor says that the complication isn’t dangerous,” when you really meant that it is not common. Even if you are promised that you won’t be quoted by name, be aware that those who are taking your report or interview into account are not as familiar with the therapeutic area as you are, and can misunderstand your intended meaning. 

Stay honest 

As you are preparing your report or participating in an interview as an expert advisor, be careful not to exaggerate to please your client. If you are paid generously or taking on a project with a highly respected company, you might be very invested in pleasing your client. Yet, exaggerating the benefits of their product, or giving a false idea of the strength of their case can make you seem less trustworthy and actually decreases your value as a true expert. 

Watch for red flags

As more and more doctors are looking to diversify income streams and widen professional experience, there is a risk of running into some less than stellar opportunities. Physicians have encountered situations in which clients are not what they initially seemed. 

Some companies may be disorganized, some might ask a physician expert to support an incorrect conclusion or might just simply not be ready to work through the complexities of the product or case.

Conflicts of interest may also come up. For example, you may be asked to endorse a medication for indications that aren’t warranted. If you face a conflict of interest that you had not anticipated, you may be able to convince your client to do the right thing. If that isn’t possible—your reputation and conscience could be at stake. You may have to step aside from some or all of the consulting duties, and possibly negotiate a compromise on the payment if the time you spent on the project is far less than agreed upon.

Ask how to describe the project on your CV

You may be taking on a consulting project for other reasons besides extra cash. If you are advising a pharmaceutical company on how to position their product in order to gain that type of professional experience, you may want to include this on your CV.

Ask if and how your client would want this project listed. They may have certain legal restrictions against sharing information about products that are in development, and you may need to describe your experience using non-specific, yet descriptive, terminology. 

Consulting projects can be opportunities to build wide experience in the medical field. While you can expect to be compensated well, these projects can also be interesting and often give physicians an influential voice in healthcare.

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