Estelle Vester-Blokland, Senior Vice President, Medical Affairs, International Markets


Meet our leaders: Estelle Vester-Blokland

March 29, 2022     

As senior vice president, Medical Affairs, International Markets, Estelle Vester-Blokland leads Bristol Myers Squibb’s international medical organization which is focused on serving the needs of patients and healthcare organizations across diverse international markets while strengthening the visibility and scientific presence of BMS outside of the United States.

A physician by training, Vester-Blokland’s background spans several therapeutic areas, including neuroscience and oncology, and she is passionate about individualized, patient-centered care. She is a Dutch native based in Boudry, Switzerland, and returns to Bristol Myers Squibb after eight years working for Novartis and Roche. 

Here she shares, among other things, the childhood experience that sparked her interest in medicine, the defining characteristics of her leadership style, how Medical Affairs supports the company’s business, and the enlightening history of a best friend’s mental and physical illnesses and the impact of mind-body connection treatments.

Q: Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in the Netherlands, moved around to different cities, but the Netherlands is small. I went to medical school in Utrecht, the Netherlands, trained as a physician there. After my training, I worked for a few years in the hospital before joining the pharmaceutical industry. I met my husband during my university years, so we’ve been together a long time. We have two kids – well, not kids really, they’re adults now: our daughter is 23 and our son is 21. No matter how old they are, though, they’ll forever be your kids. 

Q: What led you to pursue a career in medicine?

I was hospitalized many times as a child. It’s a scary feeling when you’re so young. You don’t really know what’s going on with you, why you are so sick, why you need to be in the hospital. But I had this wonderful pediatrician, a woman, and she always made me feel more comfortable. She explained what was happening to me, what was going on, in a way I could understand. That made me feel better, safer, not so afraid. So, I think that’s probably where the seed was planted, what stuck with me, to want to help others, and understand the illness and ways to treat it.

Q: Is there a particular patient story that’s had a special impact on you?

Besides myself being the first patient story that had impact in my life, one of my best friends from university has had a health journey that has intrigued me on several levels because it’s such a powerful example of mind-body-health connection and how one area can significantly affect another. She went through a period of severe depression, very serious, and was hospitalized for a while because of it. She didn’t do well on medication and had to resort to electroconvulsive therapy for treatment. At some point during this depressive period, she got diagnosed with an immune-related disorder, and was treated with corticosteroids. Immediately her depression improved! It made me realize that there was likely a biological component that drove her psychiatric illness. 

Later, when she was in her 40’s, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Again, I wonder about her mind-body connection. If we understand the immune system better, how to recognize its weakness or how to strengthen it, I think we can treat more illnesses more concisely. It’s all so fascinating to me.

"The primary role for Medical Affairs is helping to expedite implementation into clinical practice, uncovering barriers that stand in the way of progress, and finding ways to overcome those barriers."

Q: How do you see Medical Affairs supporting the company’s business?

Latching onto the Bristol Myers Squibb vision of ‘transforming lives through science,' I think the Medical Affairs role is specifically translating that science into clinical practice. Science by itself doesn’t automatically lead to physicians doing something different for patients, or patients having better opportunities for treatment or diagnosis, because there are lots of barriers. In order to be implemented, every new scientific discovery requires change, a change in mindset and a change in behavior, which often takes a long time. There’s research data that says it takes an average of 17 years before most new innovations, whether diagnostic or treatment, becomes embedded into clinical practice. Seventeen! That’s why I think the primary role for Medical Affairs is helping to expedite implementation into clinical practice, uncovering barriers that stand in the way of progress, and finding ways to overcome those barriers. It’s part education and part mindset, but it’s also mobilizing change in the medical system itself, which isn’t easy. Medical Affairs can be a catalyst in leading and progressing that change. That, and finding ways to make science practical and tangible for people who work in the healthcare system and for patients themselves. 

Q: You’ve returned to Bristol Myers Squibb after eight years working for Novartis and Roche. What brought you back?

I was primarily drawn back by the vision Bristol Myers Squibb has for the role of Medical Affairs. Giovanni Caforio once said that the difference between a good pharma company and a great one is its Medical Affairs organization. That perspective on the value this department can bring, elevates the confidence of what it ultimately can deliver, and I welcomed the challenge to build the best Medical Affairs group possible — and of course the pipeline is very exciting. What we are planning to do, and range of new products we are bringing to the healthcare system — it’s a dynamic portfolio, and I look forward to being part of the execution.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

I’m not someone who likes to tell people what to do. I prefer to engage them and collaborate as a team. I’d like to empower people, yet I also realize that empowerment needs to come with clarity, a clear understanding of what the guardrails are, and that people also need to be ready to be empowered. People always want to feel like they can make their own decisions. However, with that also comes the responsibility of taking initiative, taking responsibility and accountability for the good and the bad, executing and seeing the project through to completion. 

In a team, each member brings their own individuality, then you build on each other’s ideas, and together, the end result is always richer. I’m also hoping that people will feel comfortable challenging me. I like to focus a lot on psychological safety. It’s very important that people feel free and open to speak up, to bring ideas to the table — even if it’s an idea that may not work at that exact point in time. Sometimes the outlier ideas lead to the best and unexpected results. I think it’s important to create a safe space and environment where people feel supported and encouraged to pushback and challenge the status quo.

I deeply appreciate openness and transparency. I like when people speak their minds and don’t beat around the bush — being straightforward really resonates with me. Also, I like people who ask questions not for the sake of just asking questions, but because they are genuinely curious.  

Q: What other topics are top of mind for you these days? 

One thing I feel is very important is the topic of talent development. These uncertain times, especially during the pandemic, have triggered many to reflect on their lives and to question where they are: Am I in the right job? Am I in the right company, or right industry? Should I do something else? There is a lot of talk and media attention about “the great resignation” or “the great reset.” I think if people sense that they’re in a place where they feel heard, where they feel valued, where they feel there’s growth opportunities, then they will thrive and perform at their best. I think that’s especially true for the Bristol Myers Squibb colleagues who are based outside of the U.S. We have an obligation to devote more time, energy and focus on making sure we create an environment that fosters that sense of belonging — at least for the medical organization as much as I can influence that. It’s interesting how many comments I’ve received from people saying, “Oh, it’s so great that you are in your role and based in Switzerland. It sends a signal.” It’s inspiring for them, and it’s inspiring for me as well.

I will do my best to live up to the expectation.

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Bristol Myers Squibb is a global biopharmaceutical company whose mission is to discover, develop and deliver innovative medicines that help patients prevail over serious diseases. As global citizens, we work sustainably and responsibly to create a positive impact in the communities where we live and work.