A drug/ non-drug intervention to cure any kind of disease(s), has to be both clinically effective (for patients) and economically effective !

Sounak Das, our next pathbreaker, Research Analyst and Health Economist at a global healthcare company, Open Health, works on evidence synthesis of new drugs for pricing, regulatory approval and ultimately supporting market access for these new healthcare interventions.

Sounak talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his diverse experiences at the intersection of education and healthcare, and the significance of data and empirical evidence in validating any problem statement(s).

For students, bringing a drug out in the market requires an understanding of the economics of health markets backed by sound quantitative modelling and research skills !

Sounak, Your background?

A large part of my life was spent travelling (studying/ working) pan-India since my father is in the government services. As I was growing up, my parents tried to foster a holistic education through a good balance of academics and extracurricular activities (largely involving music, visual arts, and debating – what else can you expect growing up in a quintessential Bengali family haha?), which helped me in working hard, thinking creatively and critically, and most importantly, managing time well from an early age. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my bachelors in Chemistry (major) with Mathematics (minor) from Delhi University. After working for two years at “Teach for India” post my graduation and understanding the ground realities of the public education system of our country, I developed an interest for economics which led me to pursue a PGD course in economics with a specialization in data analytics from Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics (affiliated to Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics). 

Tell us, what prompted you to take up such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

While working at Teach for India in Pune, I was associated with a nutrition project aimed at evaluating the impact of the nutrition intake of students coming from low-income communities on their learning outcomes. During this process I realized the significance and the long-term impact of both education and health towards the socio-economic development of any economy, and that how uncannily interconnected they are to each other. One of the key influencers who probably sowed the seeds for my interest in working in public/ global health was my supervisor of the nutrition project, Ms. Harini Ravichandran (MPH, University of Southern California). 

There are three people/ mentors in my life who led me to make the choice vis-à-vis my current role at Open Health (a global healthcare company) as a Research Analyst cum Health Economist. 

Firstly, it was my project supervisor (as mentioned above) Ms. Harini Ravichandran. During her supervision, I understood the significance of data and empirical evidence in validating any problem statement(s) at the intersection of education and healthcare. 

Secondly, it was my project supervisor Dr. Tushar Poddar (PhD, London School of Economics) while I was working as a Research Associate at Wellington Management. During his supervision, I understood the significance of science and technology and the large-scale impact it can create in education/ healthcare/ businesses. 

Thirdly, my mentor while i was studying at MDAE (Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics )- Iravati Damle (Director of Government Affairs at Zoom), who made me realize how a good public policy (especially tech and data policy) has a huge role to play in order to make systems and processes efficient and effective in any developing economy to achieve the desired outcomes at scale. 

One of the other events (apart from the ones mentioned above) which raised my interest in International Development was a trip to Egypt as part of a global volunteering program. During this time I got a global perspective of the challenges in the education and healthcare spaces by working “on the ground” across Egypt along with other volunteers from across the globe. The Project comes under SDG 4 (Quality Education) and SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) of the United Nations.

I got my current job amidst the biggest global health crisis (i.e. COVID-19 pandemic). Although my interest to work in the global health sector was developed prior to the pandemic (due to the aforementioned events/ academic and work experience/ influences/ mentorship), the crisis just fueled my goal to work in this sector. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

The thought process in general was to follow my self-interest(s) in the true sense (Haha was following Adam Smith’s economic theory even before my realization/ understanding about the same) and not get swayed away by the collectivist ideology which usually Indian students succumb to. I have been just fortunate that things fell into place eventually. 

I was awarded the Adam Smith scholarship while pursuing my PGD at MDAE (The scholarship offers 25% concession on the tuition fees and is awarded only to the top 4 students of the batch by the academy).  

I was a Leadership Fellow/ Educator at Teach For India (TFI). This was a 2-year full-time fellowship where I was primarily working as an educator teaching almost 100 students across grade 9 and 10 at a low-income public school in Pune. During this course I was involved in a couple projects including the nutrition project and the skill development project (These projects were designed and implemented at community level). For the projects, I had pitched and raised funds of Rs. 5 lacs from Bajaj Capital. The fellowship experience was a turning point in my life in its true sense as it fostered the true leadership skills (including stakeholder engagement, communication, decision making, time and crisis management) as well as the hard skills (including project management, research and technical skills) in a practical way. As mentioned before, this experience helped me to zoom in and understand the loopholes in the education and health systems at a ground level as well as systemic level. 

I took up a part-time opportunity while working at TFI as Monitoring and Evaluation Consultant, PMC (Education Dept.). As a part of this fellowship, I was responsible for evaluating the impact of two of the projects implemented by the education department of Pune Municipal Corporation (The projects included Teacher Training project and Professional Development of Govt. Officers project). 

I also took up a remote opportunity as Research Assistant, Wellington Management. Here, I was assisting Dr. Tushar Poddar (PhD, London School of Economics) and Macro Strategist, Emerging Markets at Wellington Management, London. The project was to evaluate the impact (social, economic and policy implications) of technology on education, healthcare, and tech enterprises in emerging markets using quantitative analysis.

How did you get your first break?

The first job opportunity (i.e. at Teach for India) was a campus placement (Delhi University) opportunity. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

One of the biggest challenges with respect to the Indian job market is the validation you get when you pursue a conventional degree (like engineering/ MBA/ medicine etc.) or graduate as a student of an elite institution — which is not a case with the western education system.  I also had to prove my worth, skills and the value addition I could bring to every opportunity I had probably because of my unconventional academic and career trajectory.  But what really helped to ace these opportunities i.e. whether working in an NGO/ Govt. agency/ Private investment management company and now a Global healthcare company, is my hard work, perseverance and most importantly, a strong conviction to work towards the larger goal/ problem statement I am really passionate about (i.e. to eradicate poverty through the powerful tools of education and health). This in turn gives me self-motivation/ driving force to work in my day-to-day work life (despite the fact that some days can be mundane/ overwhelming). 

Where do you work now? 

I am currently working as Research Analyst cum Health Economist in a global healthcare company called Open Health in their Meta-Analysis and Health Economic Modelling vertical/ Strategic Market Access vertical. 

What problems do you solve?

I work in the HEOR (Health Economics and Outcomes Research) domain- which is a niche domain within the broader domain of health economics. 

What I essentially do/ is, the larger problem statement I work towards is to develop an evidence synthesis (includes evaluating the clinical and economic effectiveness, pricing and reimbursement of new drug/ non-drug interventions developed by pharma companies) for the regulatory/ HTA bodies (like FDA in USA/ EMA in EU/ NICE in UK etc.) for drug approval and ultimately supporting market access of these new healthcare interventions.  

Health Economics is a fairly unknown area, can you explain the above with a hypothetical example of a problem and how does health economics address it?

For example- 

I am currently working on a Cost-Effectiveness model for a global pharma company to evaluate the cost-effectiveness (defined as both cost and health effectiveness of a healthcare intervention) of their vaccine vis-à-vis no prophylaxis to cure Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). The results from the model showed us that both cost wise and QALY wise (an indicator which measures health effectiveness) that the vaccine is more cost-effective than no prophylaxis to cure RSV. These results will eventually support market access of the vaccine post an approval from the respective country’s regulatory/ HTA body. 

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

There are largely four skills which are very important for this role: 

  1. Quantitative skills (sound knowledge of math and statistics) 
  1. Technical skills (sound knowledge of programming languages like R, VBA) 
  2. Research skills (Domain knowledge in health economics and clinical/ medical research) 
  3. Communication skills (includes both strong written and verbal communication skills) 

In my case, I acquired the skills largely through my previous academic and work experiences. Also, the organization has its own learning management system, strong internal as well as external training resources for skilling/ up-skilling. 

What’s a typical day like?

My scope of work largely involves 40% medical research (includes systematic literature review and survival analysis), 40% data analytics (includes meta-analysis, infectious disease modelling, and health economic modelling), and 20% public policy (HTA (Health technology assessment) submissions) 

What is it you love about this job? 

What I really love about the job, apart from the scope of work, is the organization’s strong work culture, good work-life balance and handsome compensation.  

How does your work benefit society? 

To cure any kind of disease(s), it’s very significant for any drug/ non-drug intervention to be both clinically and economically effective. The evidence synthesis we create helps in measuring the effectiveness (quantitatively) hence making more well-informed decisions and policies vis-à-vis healthcare systems and processes. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

The most memorable work for me was while working at Open Health, getting hands-on creating an epidemiological model for an infectious disease (HIV/AIDS). It helped me to understand the entire process from model conceptualization to the end results. This project was close to me since HIV/AIDS is one of the major public health problems in the world. The human immunodeficiency virus HIV/AIDS epidemic has already devastated many individuals, families, and communities. The epidemic has left millions of children orphaned, has disrupted village and community life, and increasingly contributes to the erosion of civil order and economic growth.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I can only advise students (especially the target audience here is school going students) to explore and navigate different options as much as possible during the school period (which is the ideal time to do so) and then possibly narrow it down to your specific interests. Also a very important thing during this process is to follow your self-interest in its true sense and not get swayed by the herd/ collectivist ideology both in your academic and professional life (remember Adam Smith’s economic theory I had mentioned about before?) 

Future Plans?

I am planning to study further (most likely abroad this time but no idea when and where). I am primarily interested in pursuing quant heavy public policy courses and working eventually in the international development organizations as a health economist (saying that I am open to other possibilities/ options as well).