New Delhi: When teenager Md Arif Hasan enrolled in the MBBS course at the Kolkata Medical College in the late 1990s, he had two objectives: the doctor tag, and to cure people.
He fulfilled the first in 2002; soon got bored of the second; then decided that the emerging and lucrative business of clinical research was more along the lines of “what I really want to do”.
Multinational pharmaceutical firms are increasingly looking at India as a base for their clinical research (or clinical testing) efforts. These involve testing drugs on human volunteers in a controlled environment. The business used to be an attractive career option for graduates in science and pharmacology; now, it is attracting doctors, according to data provided by the Institute of Clinical Research (India) or ICRI, an organization that trains students for careers in clinical research. In 2004, seven doctors enrolled for the course; in 2006, 294 did. “The majority of students are still from the life sciences, but over the years doctors have begun to constitute 20-25% of the total intake,” said S.K. Gupta, director general and dean, ICRI.
The main reason for this appears to be salaries and the number of positions available. Hasan said that he expects to earn Rs30,000 a month when he finishes his course. “If I were to do my MD (a postgraduate programme in medicine), it would take two more years and I will have to slog it out as a trainee in a hospital,” he added. And Hasan could still end up earning what he will do as an entry-level clinical researcher, maybe even less.
Gupta said that Indian pharma firms, with their focus on generics—cheaper versions of drugs going off patent—or entirely new molecules, had contributed to growing opportunities in clinical testing. The firms are not keen on hiring doctors alone. All they need is a tester or a clinical research associate (CRA) who takes notes and records data during the process. It’s vital work, but boring.
“When I am recruiting CRAs, it only matters that candidates are strong on research fundamentals and have good people -management skills,” said Surinder Kher, CEO, Clinsys India Ltd, a contract research organization (CRO) that manages clinical tests for several pharmaceutical firms. “But it’s always a plus to have a doctor as a CRA,” admitted Kher. “Given their academic background, they understand drug technicalities better.”
The growing opportunities in clinical research provides a way out for doctors who cannot gain admission into postgraduate programmes. In 2006, India produced 20,572 MBBS graduates; the number of postgraduate seats in medicine available that year was 6,127. Of the two-thirds who do not have an option to enroll in a postgraduate course, some go overseas to work or study, others join government service or take up jobs in private hospitals, and a few brave ones set up independent practice. “I think career options in the clinical research sector are great for our doctors,” said Dr Sneh Bhargava, professor and ex-director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences. “We need qualified people for medical research, and joining this industry will ultimately benefit our research abilities.” Not everyone is convinced, though. A Rajasekaran, who’s on the Medical Council of India’s postgraduate committee, said it wasn’t a healthy trend to have doctors entering clinical research. “We need more doctors in the country. The CRO industry can easily get qualified people from the life sciences, but getting good doctors is not easy. We need more MD seats, so that students aren’t weaned away into CROs,” he added.