October 2014

University Programs for Academic/Practitioner Collaboration—Part Two


Editor’s Note: part one of this article series can be found in the April 2014 issue of Expanding Horizons.

By Ian Duncan and Jay Vadiveloo

Academic Partnerships: the buyer’s perspective
I had the pleasure of being a co-panelist with Jay Vadiveloo at the 2013 SOA Annual Meeting in San Diego. I was pleased to join the panel because I represent a couple of perspectives: as a researcher, I am a Faculty Member of the Center for Research in Financial Mathematics & Statistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But it was as a client of and collaborator with academics that I particularly wanted to weigh-in.

In addition to my academic interests, I have been vice president and head of Clinical Research at the Walgreen Co. in Chicago for the past three years. Walgreens is a company that all Americans are familiar with from its over 8,000 pharmacies on many street corners. What is less well-known is the breadth of clinical services that the company provides, from intervention programs aiming to foster adherence to prescription drugs, immunizations (With the exception of the U.S. government, Walgreens is the largest influenza immunizer in the country.), primary care (through both retail and worksite clinics), home infusion of specialty drugs and fulfillment of specialty drugs through both mail and retail. We have a number of Centers of Excellence pharmacies for support of patients with certain diseases, including nearly 1,000 HIV Centers of Excellence. We are also partners with physician groups in three Medicare Shared Savings ACOs. I head a research staff of about 30, including eight PhDs, a number of MPHs, MBAs, PharmD’s and 5 actuaries! (The actuaries are particularly useful for our work on ACOs.)

Our mission is to publish (largely) peer-reviewed studies of our products and services. We publish about 15 peer-reviewed studies a year covering the full spectrum of our business, and we have been steadily raising the impact factor of the journals in which we publish. By performing our work in-house, we employ a different model to others in our industry; for example, pharmaceutical companies often contract with outside organizations for studies, and others endow research institutions (not unlike Jay’s). The demand for studies to support our business exceeds the supply of researchers, however, and we collaborate with (and on occasion hire) academics. Our experience in these collaborations has been mixed, which was the subject of my talk in San Diego.

We have a number of successful collaborations, and some that have been unsuccessful. The successful ones have resulted in either publications, posters or presentations. For example, a paper on off-clinic immunizations in our pharmacies, in collaboration with a researcher at the University of Southern California. Collaboration with a researcher in HIV around our HIV Centers of Excellence has produced several papers and posters. A collaboration with a University of Chicago researcher resulted in a paper presented at the Society of General Internal Medicine. We have a current collaboration with Northwestern University to study the universal medication schedule; this is a large-scale, multi-year project for which we were jointly awarded a significant grant. At the same time, our attempts to partner with other academic institutions have not met with similar success. One of the challenges of collaborations from our perspective (since we have a large, competent and experienced research staff) is the need to be very efficient about studies. Where we have been successful, it is because either we had a specific project in mind (off-clinic immunizations, for example) or the researcher came to us with a well-developed proposal and hypothesis. We frequently engage in time-consuming and ultimately unsuccessful research “brainstorming” sessions with academics to try to develop research ideas. A common result from these discussions can be summarized as the academic institution saying to us: “Give us your data and we will mine it for something that we can propose to study in depth.” These sessions have generally been resource-intensive and ultimately frustrating because they have not led to successful projects.

Even when a partnership is successful, it often requires as much of my (and my staff’s) time to “drag it across the finish line.” We are, after all, a commercial enterprise, and although we engage in high-quality research and want to be published and acknowledged, we are not researching a subject for the sake of developing new methods or pursuing some interesting aspect to the exclusion of the goal. An example of this is a paper that has recently been accepted by a journal that began about two years ago as a study from a major researcher at a major university commissioned by a colleague. I became involved because I recognized that the study could be published. It took considerable time and effort to focus the researchers on our needs (a publishable study in a reasonable time-frame) and I ultimately re-wrote the paper to achieve this goal.

So my experience as a purchaser of these services has taught me some rules-of-thumb which I offer for academics that may be thinking of engaging in this business:

    1. When we need assistance or are looking for a partner, we want to partner with the expert on the topic (or at least one of the leading researchers in the area).


    1. Our need is for applied research, not primary research.


    1. When we have a specific topic in mind, we are looking for insights and methods that we may have missed, as a result of not being as familiar with the literature or current research in the space, for example.


    1. We have deadlines and clear deliverables! While we are flexible and can accommodate academics’ priorities (we understand that some amount of teaching is unavoidable) successful partners are those that understand that deadlines matter.


    1. Academics who (like Jay) have been or are consultants make good partners: consultants understand the dynamics, know how to manage clients (us) and appreciate the importance of deliverables.


    1. Indeed, successful partners are those that have some understanding of the commercial world in which we operate. This means not just understanding deliverables and deadlines but also our business as a business. Sometimes we need to explain this to academics that have little or no business experience.


    1. A good partner is one who knows the space, knows the issues that keep us up at night, has done his/her homework and has a hypothesis that he/she would like to test out in our environment that would (if it proved true) add value to our business.


  1. Collaboration works better with institutes with a heavy dose of practitioners. (For us, this includes pharmacy and medical schools that train professionals.)

For those academics who are interested in partnering with industry, the rewards are significant for a successful partner. I hope that these tips are useful to you as you proceed on the journey.

Ian Duncan FSA, FIA, FCIA, MAAA, is adjunct professor of actuarial statistics in the department of statistics & applied probability at the University of California, Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara, Calif. and is recently retired from the Walgreen Co. in Deerfield, Ill where he was vice president, clinical outcomes & reporting. He can be reached at duncan@pstat.ucsb.edu.

Jay Vadiveloo, Ph.D, FSA, MAAA, CFA, is professor-in-residence and director, Janet & Mark L. Goldenson Center for Actuarial Research at the University of Connecticut. He is also a senior research consultant at Towers Watson in Weatogue, Conn. He can be reached at vadiveloo@math.uconn.edu.