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Demand for chief medical officer roles skyrocketed during pandemic

Chief medical officers became a hot, new career choice for those with medical training, as employers and federal and local governments, sought an in-house expert as the pandemic swept the country in 2020 and 2021.

"The pandemic unleashed a surge of demand for top management talent to fill Chief Medical Officer roles," according to ZipRecruiter chief economist Julia Pollack.

To date, more than 2,900 jobs were posted in 2022, Pollack added.

By comparison, there were only 767 jobs posted pre-pandemic in 2019, and a record 5,000 posted last year.

The demand was seen across industries. Healthcare companies saw the need to create or fill the position to help with product and service development, while non-health companies required a clinician for operational and employee health management needs.

For some, it was a pivot from a position they already held. For others, it was a career shift altogether.

“The reality is, I am the inaugural chief medical officer of this organization. And I am not alone in that fate,” said Antonio Tataranni, chief officer of health and wellness at PepsiCo (PEP). “There have been moments where the weight of the responsibility has been large,” he added.

The sudden surge in responsibility for CMOs forged an unofficial roundtable inside corporate America, including Tataranni.

Live camera footage of a patient hospitalised with COVID-19 is shown from a computer monitor during a daily meeting lead by Dr. Joseph Varon (not pictured), the chief medical officer at United Memorial Medical Center (UMMC), with a team of healthcare professionals, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Houston, Texas, U.S., July 10, 2020.  REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare     SEARCH
Live camera footage of a patient hospitalised with COVID-19 is shown from a computer monitor during a daily meeting lead by Dr. Joseph Varon (not pictured), the chief medical officer at United Memorial Medical Center (UMMC) (REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare)

Known informally as the U.S. Roundtable of Chief Medical Officers — which could change as the group hopes to go global —the new crop of C-suite doctors banded together and continue sharing their expertise and information based on the latest data and projections.

There are currently about 20 chief medical officers who are part of this group, from industries like airlines, technology, consumer goods, academia, pharmaceutical, and retail. Since it isn't an official group, the companies declined to be named.

Breakneck speed

One of the biggest responsibilities these medical experts had included fighting misinformation and disinformation, as well as advising executives on operational decisions.

Delta’s (DAL) chief health and well-being officer, Dr. Henry Ting said he never thought he’d ever be working for a company, much less an airline. But he was still able to maneuver the new role.

“This was sort of an existential threat to Delta airlines, in terms of duration and severity," Ting said. "Our revenue and passenger rides dropping 95% in 30 days, almost the opposite of what Lysol (RBGLY) and Purell saw."

So Ting formed a strategic relationship with all of Delta’s executives and began the process of trying to look four weeks ahead and decide how the company should operate at all levels. That led to decisions like blocking the middle seat on flights, to changed HEPA filters or setting up testing and vaccine sites for employees.

Deloitte's Ken Abrams executed a different strategy, but one that was equally inclusive. Abrams found himself needing to "educate a group of people who never ever in their lives imagined that they were going to need a science-based education."

Sanathan Aiyadurai, 27, and Diego Montelongo, 27, who are medical students, review a COVID-19 patient's status during a daily meeting lead by Dr. Joseph Varon, 58, the chief medical officer at United Memorial Medical Center (UMMC), during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at UMMC in Houston, Texas, U.S., July 10, 2020.  REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare     SEARCH
Sanathan Aiyadurai, 27, and Diego Montelongo, 27, who are medical students, review a COVID-19 patient's status during a daily meeting lead by Dr. Joseph Varon, 58, the chief medical officer at United Memorial Medical Center (UMMC) REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

The team built a mini medical school program to help educate executive leadership about immunology, physiology, virology, and epidemiology.

Information and vaccine access

Pepsi, like other large multinational corporations, had one key advantage in gaining knowledge about the virus — it operates in hundreds of countries. So when waves of Covid hit different parts of the world, Pepsi had eyes on the ground to understand the situation, and how to respond accordingly.

“It was very clear that information was developing at a breakneck speed, and differently in different parts of the world,” Pepsi's Tataranni, who is also senior vice president of life sciences, said.

“In the very beginning, our Chinese colleagues were really the coaches that were telling us (what would) happen," he said.

Over time, the local teams were allowed to decide how to handle the situation on the ground during surges. Sometimes, the role went beyond keeping abreast of the latest information. In some cases, Pepsi found itself at the center of the vaccine acquisition battles globally.

“At some point, some of the more money-strapped governments started reaching out to a private corporation, especially at the time of deployment of vaccines. So we had to navigate a little bit of the vaccine diplomacy,” Tataranni said.

All of these were beyond the normal experiences for a former endocrinologist who was hired to head Pepsi’s research and development.

But the workload didn’t end there. Tataranni also found himself in the interviewer’s chair, launching a Q&A series with experts that was broadcast internally and available for all employees internationally.

Chief clinical officer John Corman MD at Virginia Mason administers a dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at the Amazon Meeting Center in downtown Seattle, Washington on January 24, 2021. - Amazon is partnering with Virginia Mason for a one-day pop-up clinic on January 24. 2021 that aims to vaccinate 2,000 people at the companys Meeting Center near downtown Seattle. Virginia Mason is handling vaccine administration, while Amazon is providing the location and help with logistics. (Photo by Grant HINDSLEY / AFP) (Photo by GRANT HINDSLEY/AFP via Getty Images)
Chief clinical officer John Corman MD at Virginia Mason administers a dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at the Amazon Meeting Center in downtown Seattle, Washington on January 24, 2021. (Photo by Grant HINDSLEY / AFP) (Photo by GRANT HINDSLEY/AFP via Getty Images)

Ting also had a range of sources. He relied on his peer network developed over years at large clinical systems as he maneuvered being able to balance the business and operations with the science. That included contacts at the CDC, Emory, Stanford, Mass General, and Mayo Clinic.

“Sometimes the science is not always so clear, or black and white. In fact, usually, it isn’t. Particularly in something like Covid, where everything was a curveball, and you never knew what was around the corner,” he said.

That’s where Ting sees the future of the CMO role in companies. Where once, doctors that held the role were more occupational health advisers, they are now advising the entire C-suite on operations. And that, Ting said, has elevated the role to a point where it is likely to remain.

Long term impact

Salesforce (CRM) chief medical officer Geeta Nayyar said the trust and relationships built during the pandemic will lend themselves to more impactful efforts of keeping employees healthy.

"Companies want to do exactly what we're doing which is make their employees smart about health care, and it's expensive. Health care is a huge cost on the balance sheet," Nayyar said.

Kroger's (KR) chief medical officer, Marc Watkins, who has been in the role since 2018, sees only growth in the near future.

"I don't think employers today are going to move away from chief physician executive or chief medical officer roles if they can add them at this point. Just because of the uncertainty moving out of the pandemic," Watkins said.

"Given what you're seeing in the market with them hiring or non-traditional organization bring on physician leadership, I feel like we see that continue. It won't be business as usual," he added.

Follow Anjalee on Twitter @AnjKhem

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