Read the Conversation

EF: You have been recently appointed. What has been the mission you have set for yourself, especially leading remotely? 

VK: In terms of my professional career, I believe it's extremely important living abroad and learning from different cultures. The opportunity of having more responsibility and leading a cluster -Colombia and Ecuador- was a big challenge, both on a professional and personal level, and a perfect chance for me. My mission for Colombia and Ecuador is to create a high-performance team, a challenge as the cluster has just been started up; both countries had been operating separately and the managerial team in Colombia is being built up. The idea is to learn from each other to have the best benchmark possible. Use what is working in Colombia and take to Ecuador and vice versa and focus on the speciality business: oncology, multiple sclerosis, fertility. Primary care and cardio-metabolic business are both very strong in these countries. Part of my mission is also to bring our innovative pipeline and speciality products into Colombia and Ecuador. 

EF: After a hectic 2020 what have been the lessons learned from this pandemic, that we can take into the future? 

VK: The pandemic created a lot of value within companies, value in terms of resilience, showing people up for whom they are, creating value in the family groups, and making them more aware of the work being done by their parents, partners and children –a good example for everyone. It showed us, managers that we have to stay close, even if virtually, to the people we work with and of course, respect their personal times. At first, we didn’t know how to handle the new way of working so we had calls without rest at all times but eventually we managed to balance out with time and be more considerate about other times.

EF: To ensure business continuity over this last year there has been a need to find the right balance between tactical and strategic decisions, so what would be your advice to manage the current situation? 

VK: 2020 has been a challenging year for us all, trying to implement new projects and different strategies. Merck had the advantage of already having a home office going on, so when the lockdown was implemented, ‘home office’ was not that difficult to implement. The lack of office interaction was of course missed and being in the field with certain projects was difficult, we had to suddenly accelerate certain skills to be able to work in a new way so it meant all sides and areas had to adapt. Working in the health sector we had to adapt to the pandemic from day one as there was no chance of us closing down; it was our responsibility that patients continue to receive their medication and we had to ensure continuity of supply providing both services and products. I am proud of the fact we never stopped and kept adapting and training our people to cope with the situation, first virtually and eventually physically when it could be done. All this has really accelerated our digital skills which were nowhere near as good as they are now, we have really and truly embraced those skills now and for the future and have more tools to work with, for better results. 

EF: How do you rate the level of adoption of digitalization in the Peruvian and Colombian markets –both of which you know well- by all stakeholders: physicians, patients, and the whole healthcare ecosystem? 

VK: In Peru, telemedicine was implemented at great speed, electronic prescriptions took a bit longer. The normative was ready pretty soon but the implementation was slow. Peru is a big country and geographically speaking, complicated, so the implementation was difficult to do whereas Colombia was better prepared and had perhaps a better educational foundation for the implementation. 

EF: Could you elaborate on Merck Colombia´s footprint, plans, and strategic importance to the Group? 

VK: Merck Colombia has three divisions and we define ourselves as an innovative, scientific and technological company, so it´s not only about the healthcare division. There are scientists behind the scenes working on the innovations the company offers, we do research for new compounds, biologicals, devices, etc. in the Scientific Division. The third division is Performance materials which is about consumer goods, specific pigments used in cosmetics, liquid crystals, and everything attaining to performance in products we use every day. In Colombia, healthcare is the biggest and the best-known division but our footprint is strong in all three areas. In healthcare, our primary care business is critical, especially with the focus on cardio-metabolic, and we have a long history of treating patients. In multiple sclerosis, we were among the first to start offering treatments in Colombia and we also have a fertility area that works very well. Merck is present in all the stages of a person’s life, from creation with fertility, patients with chronic diseases, and then patients with more specific diseases such as oncology and multiple sclerosis covering the whole span of life and we have saved so many patients along the way that it feels like the best legacy to have. 

EF: If the pandemic has proved anything, it is that health must go on, now the focus on communicable diseases but chronic diseases are still part of the health equation. How do we tackle both at the same time? 

VK: Last year was a hard year for many patients with the focus switched very definitely on communicable diseases and Covid with chronic patients, and patients needing diagnosis being left behind. But the pandemic has also brought a lot of opportunities and discussions to the table showing up many inefficiencies in the health system not to mention certain talks on the importance of research -bringing awareness to the sector that wasn’t there before. During the pandemic, chronic diseases haven’t got the needed attention but for the future, we can implement the needed protocols, to serve all patients, install virtual consults to have better and more complete service so patients won’t even have to travel to the hospitals. This has been a lesson learnt. It is a way of giving access to people who need it and a great chance to change and improve in the future.

EF: What is your personal definition of access? 

VK: Access means any patient regardless of economic standing or geographic location can access the right treatment for their disease. It is an ideal as yet I know, but we need the ideal to improve on what we have. 

EF: Could you share any advice for women in leadership positions in the region, who wish to grow in the sector? 

VK: With digitalization being so prominent, it is now easier to work from whatever place one feels the most comfortable and companies must allow for their people to work from their preferred location, especially now that responsibilities can be dealt with from a distance and as it is no longer necessary to travel one can manage from the structure or family which most helps. Personally to a woman, I would say not to be afraid to have the needed conversations with her husband, partner or family, just speak out and work it out together, but one must speak first to have that conversation, don’t assume it can’t be done, speak to your partner or boss, changes are possible and easier than one thinks. If you are a talent there will always be room made for you to adapt. 

EF: Healthcare (and productivity) has been top of the agenda for everybody in 2020, so how can momentum be built on the importance of healthcare moving forward? 

VK: No matter what industry we are in, the health of our employees is critical for the future of the company so a manager must provide health regardless of sector. Our sector must work on different areas, either speaking with the government or improving access through vaccination programs or offering extra health coverage, medications and continuity in the treatments they need or even on adherence because the productivity of the company depends on this being done. Managers have a very important role in ensuring the health of their employees. 

EF: What would you like your 2021 tenure to be remembered for? 

VK: I would like 2021 to be the year we finally implement the normative for the changes we have historically needed in the health systems. There are a lot of regulations but they are still mostly just theory so if we could implement at least half of them for the advantage of the vast majority of citizens, I think it would be really memorable and it would mean we really learnt from 2020.

February 2021