Pharma Faces: Sandra Sanchez-Oldenhage, GM NoLA Region, Novartis Oncology


Sandra Sanchez-Oldenhage has headed up the North Latin America (NoLA) region for Novartis Oncology since January 2020. In a recent wide-ranging interview with PharmaBoardroom, she gave insights into what attracted her to the position initially, her strategy for achieving success in the first 90 days in a new management position, and her goal to increase access to Novartis Oncology therapies across the region in the coming months and years.  


Why Novartis?

Having previously worked at MSD, Pfizer, Amgen and local Mexican champion PROBIOMED, Sanchez-Oldenhage laid out her rationale for joining Novartis thusly. “First, it is a global leader in oncology and blood disorders with the largest oncology portfolio in the world,” she noted. “The company has 25 approved medicines and has one of the largest clinical engines (in breast, lung, melanoma, kidney, haematology), hence a broad pipeline with over 10 new molecular entities. Our history precedes us, as we have been in the oncology business for over 20 years and have revolutionized cancer treatments.”

I wanted to be part of a company that is continuously reimagining science in the pursuit of transformative treatments

“Cancer is not one disease, but a constellation of diseases of immense complexity that cannot be solved by only one approach. Novartis is uniquely positioned to lead the next wave of novel treatments in cancer & blood disorders through their presence and strengths in four bold treatment platforms across key disease areas: targeted therapies, cell & gene, differentiated immunotherapies, and radioligand therapies. No other company is doing this. Novartis is looking at different pathways, different MoAs, etc. to treat grievous illnesses. As you can understand, oncology is an important growth driver for Novartis. We are indeed reimagining science in everything we do.

“Second, since becoming CEO, Dr Vas Narasimhan has led a strategic and cultural transformation at Novartis to build a leading medicines company globally powered by advanced therapy platforms and data science. He has been working relentlessly to set the company on a new path to reinvent itself. Culture has been a big push at Novartis. He strives to show that culture drives both performance and innovation, pushing towards productivity and building trust with society, thus keeping us at the cutting edge for years to come

“The culture at Novartis emphasizes an informal environment that relies on three leadership pillars: Inspired, Curious & Unbossed. This is a culture where people engage in our purpose, become a learner and not a “knower”, become accountable, empower & support others, remove obstacles and are self-aware of their energy and impact. This culture is cascading down through the management chain as we speak. I see this as a very forward-thinking and entrepreneurial culture that will indeed put us at the forefront of the industry. Even as a top ten company worldwide, Novartis continues to reinvent itself, especially now before a “new normal” and with a global crisis underway.

“The third reason I decided to join Novartis relates to the opportunities and challenges in the NoLA Region. One of these challenges is access to innovation, not just for Novartis but across the industry; this is a challenge I want to be part of unlocking. Overall survival rates have a direct correlation to access to innovation. This is part of making a difference in patients’ lives.

“In summary, I wanted to be part of a company that is continuously reimagining science in the pursuit of transformative treatments by unleashing the power of people through an “unbossed” culture and that strives to make a difference by dramatically improving patients’ quality of life (QoL) and reaching underserved populations.”


First 90 Days

Asked about her priorities in the role, Sanchez-Oldenhage admitted that “Currently, and understandably, in the next few weeks, my focus is to get us through the COVID-19 outbreak, which has been challenging for all. Thus, my list of immediate priorities has changed. I am trying to be present and focused, along with being adaptable and agile so I can ensure I am supporting my team and removing obstacles. This way they can stay safe & healthy, take care of their families while guaranteeing we are serving and delivering medicines for our patients.”

She did, however, give an outline of what can be achieved in the first 90 days of a demanding new position. “My first 90 days have enabled me to:

1) LEARN (@ 30days) the organization’s perception of its purpose and strategy, gathering data by observation, listening, learning, and resisting the urge to “fix things”. This first 30 days has been about understanding how the organization is structured, what staff believe the organization’s customers need, how well those needs are being met, the details of the organization’s finances. In the end, this period is about being neutral with factual data to help highlight the current operation’s strengths and opportunities.

2) CLARIFY (@ 60days) the desired expectations for all players. I described priorities, “What” targets and “How” we should deliver on those targets. This time was about clarifying vision, values, strategy, and goals.

3) ALIGN (@ 90days) plans, decisions, and actions to best serve customers, stakeholders, and staff. I attempted to align activities to declared expectations.”


Access Above All

Looking beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic, Sanchez-Oldenhage highlighted patient access to Novartis Oncology’s innovative treatments as the key priority for the company in the region. “There is really one overarching priority: Access,” she proclaimed. “This means ensuring we can expand the availability of our drugs in Mexico and the region; making sure that patients and especially the underserved populations who are fighting & suffering from cancer and blood disorders can access our drugs if prescribed. These two chronic grievous illnesses, cancer and blood disorders, have an incredible social and economic impact and burden on the patients, caregivers and the healthcare systems. Novartis is committed to advancing science aimed at dramatically improving people’s lives; but we need to ensure patients can access this innovation, which has been proven to extend people’s lives and/or improve quality of life, thus unburdening the system.

We know it is not enough just to introduce transformative therapies; we must get them to patients who need them

“Our strategy is to closely collaborate with key stakeholders across the healthcare arena, including government, academia, the medical community, patients, and NGOs, to ensure we can find holistic solutions to the challenging demographic and epidemiological changes occurring, coupled with cost-burden and budget containment dynamics in the country. At Novartis, I am working to approach business as a community-building effort. In my opinion, this is the only way to secure a win-win outcome.

“We have to continue to innovate the way we join forces with external business partners, payers, patients, advocates, governments, healthcare systems, and academic institutions, looking for solutions that evolve our business model and serve patients with a strong value proposition that expands access – looking at risk sharing models, managed access programs, digital patient and customer support initiatives and the like.

“We know it is not enough just to introduce transformative therapies; we must get them to patients who need them. Therefore, we need to share responsibility among all key stakeholders.”

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