Fiona Thomas KPMG UKFiona Thomas has recently joined KPMG as its new Chief Medical Officer (CMO) within its Life Sciences practice.

Fiona acts as KPMG UK’s senior medical adviser to clients across the healthcare space globally.

Fiona joins from international biopharmaceutical company Swedish Orphan Biovitrum where she was UK Medical Director and has also previously held senior roles with Sanofi Pasteur MSD and Biogen.

Prior to her 14-year career in the pharmaceutical industry, Fiona practiced as a physician in critical care and anaesthesia. She brings with her significant experience in clinical practice, medical affairs, and commercial strategy.

Originally from Glasgow, Fiona studied Medicine at the University of Glasgow and is registered with a licence to practice with the UK General Medical Council. She has been instrumental throughout her career in helping bring several drugs to market, including involvement in the successful deployment of HPV vaccine for cervical cancer.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’m Fiona Thomas, KPMG UK’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO). I act as senior medical adviser to our clients across the life sciences and healthcare space globally.

Previously I worked for international biopharmaceutical company Swedish Orphan Biovitrum where I was UK Medical Director and I’ve also held senior roles with Sanofi Pasteur MSD and Biogen. Prior to my 14-year career in the pharmaceutical industry, I practiced as a physician in critical care and anaesthesia.

I’m originally from Glasgow, which is where I studied Medicine at the University of Glasgow. I now live in Berkshire with my husband and three children.

Throughout my career I’ve always been passionate about finding solutions that will ultimately bring advancement in medical practice and more positive outcomes for patients.  As CMO it’s my aim to ensure our clients receive the best possible advice so they can successfully operate within the life sciences and healthcare sectors for the benefit of patients.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, not really. I just kept moving forward and used the momentum I gained to keep going – although my parents will say I always wanted to be a doctor! I did well academically at a primary school in the east end of Glasgow and fortunately, that led me on to sit and pass an entrance exam to secure an assisted place at a Convent Girls school in Rutherglen. There was then an expectation to pursue a profession and medical school was a gateway to a good career.

During the early part of my career in pharma I was focussed on progression and achieving a role as a company medical director with a mid-sized firm. After that I’ve always just taken the option to listen when I’ve been approached with new opportunities and ideas and then pursued what I thought would be interesting. I don’t think I could have anticipated my career path when I started Med School over 20 years ago.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Absolutely. My primary challenges have always been around work life balance. I was struggling in a clinical role with 2 pre-school children and had to actively seek out a solution because it was becoming unsustainable. That’s when I started to speak to people and proactively ask them about their jobs. I realised I could transfer my skills – and this is how I got my first pharma role.

The switch from pharma to KPMG also came about for similar reasons, I was keen to continue in a leadership role but was restricted geographically by family commitments and just not wanting to re-locate to Switzerland or the US for a pharma role. So, I went out to my network, talked, listened and this role came into focus and was a perfect fit.

I think there’s a huge amount to be done to allow women to flourish in senior positions. There’s a lot of naivety that gender, age, and dependants don’t have a role in determining the success of someone’s career, and that needs to change. A big reason for me joining KPMG was the firm’s inclusive, supportive, and welcoming culture.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I spent some time working on an HPV vaccination and was a very small part of the team that secured reimbursement and inclusion on the UK national immunisation schedule for all young girls to be vaccinated against high-risk HPV types that cause cervical cancers but also against the 2 HPV types that cause genital warts.

This programme has also been extended to young boys in the UK now. It was important to me because we had the opportunity to not just prevent potential future deaths from cervical and other HPV related cancers, but also to significantly reduce the incidence of genital warts and the associated stigma and negative impact on quality of life.

What do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Over the years I’ve focussed in on listening more and trying to understand the root cause of issues. I’ve also spent a lot of time observing peers and leaders that I admire and seeking their advice when I’m faced with challenges.

Perhaps most important is always looking forward with optimism and being open to new experiences. I always try to say yes even if I’m not sure if I can do it, simply because I will never know if I don’t try.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in your profession?

Listen before you speak or offer a solution – really try to get to the root of the issue and have all the relevant information to hand before drawing conclusions.

Know your limits. It’s ok not to have the knowledge but knowing where to find it is essential so look after your network and try not to be too busy to help others because you never know when you may need their support in return.

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Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in your field, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Absolutely – often they are very low level – almost invisible at times and most times unconsciously applied. I think we are naïve to think that gender, age and dependents don’t influence decision-making when it comes to promotions, hiring and pay. There is a lot of great work ongoing to highlight where the problems exist e.g. gender pay gap data, but implementing solutions is challenging.

There should be no limit to where your talent, achievement and hard work can take you, whoever you are, and whatever your background – and that is a value which KPMG is very actively striving to achieve. For instance, last year the firm was the first organisation to publish its socio-economic background pay gaps and set a working-class background representation target.

What do you think companies can do to support the careers of women working in your field?

Within healthcare there is still much to be done around flexible training and working opportunities. There are good lessons to be taken from  Scandinavian countries who provide extended parental leave programmes, as well as looking at synching childcare/school provision with workforce needs in terms of shift patterns etc.

Due to burnout over the pandemic we’re seeing a lot of women vote with their feet and leave the healthcare system because there are better paid jobs with better benefits elsewhere. That’s an issue that needs to be addressed at all levels. Crucially, there needs to be greater flexibility in the healthcare system for women to take on more senior roles and have the option of working more flexibly.

But it’s not just about pay and benefits, it’s a culture thing. In all sectors, training, empathy, and support go a long way in keeping women in the building to grow a career. Some women become invisible for promotion and training opportunities while on maternity leave. Whilst that can be challenging for businesses to manage, it opens them up to the risk of losing talented women.

If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in STEM industries?

If we could reprogramme people’s thinking around gender norms that would go some way to addressing a lot of the barriers. Even the most liberal people I know often default to gender norms, and their unconscious biases can kick in when it comes to assuming the roles men and women have and can have in the workplace.

Now, we’ve come a long way in changing attitudes, but there’s still clearly a way to go. In an ideal world, we would see each other as equals, and not be encumbered by an engendered way of thinking which is still extremely prevalent in our society today.

What resources do you recommend for women working in your field, eg Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

Because of the pandemic, it’s been challenging for younger people to get out and network and build relationships. My advice would be to throw yourself into it – everyone is in the same boat and you don’t get something for nothing.

Use platforms such as LinkedIn to speak to people outside your network. Don’t be afraid to reach out and engage with someone you look up to. Be curious, ask them about their work, how they got to where they are, what’s important to them.

Personally, I like to read a lot. That started when I worked in Switzerland and had to commute there from London every week – it gave me a lot of time! Mostly leadership development and self-help and I tend to dip in and out rather than read cover to cover but I love to think about different perspectives, approaches and examples and how I could apply them in my day-to-day work.