Please note, this article contains references to Ashfield Engage which has now become Inizio Engage
The sheer number of clinical trials, new medications and specialty niche markets in today’s healthcare landscape has significantly increased the HCP’s demand for appropriate scientific information from their MSLs. How the industry addresses this and delivers scientific value is key to an MSL team’s ultimate success.
Who are MSLs and why are they so important?
The complexity of the science driving many therapeutic areas requires an ability to understand and present that science to those who can impact the lifecycle of the drug – the Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs). MSLs work to educate and collaborate with KOLs and the broader healthcare provider and payer community of decision makers to ultimately impact patient care and key therapeutic decisions. To do so, MSLs must have expert knowledge of the entire clinical landscape, from treatment guidelines to clinical data and beyond. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that according to the The Bowdoin Group, 75% of MSLs have either a PharmD or a PhD., 11% have a Master’s degree and 6% an MD / MBBS..1
MSLs fulfill a variety of functions throughout the lifecycle of biopharmaceutical and medical devices products and work cross functionally with a diverse set of customers such as investigators, KOLs and HCP specialists, payers, academic institutions, advocacy groups and others. Within a pharmaceutical or medical device organization, they partner with a variety of stakeholder groups including medical affairs, clinical /R&D and commercial to help inform decision making and strategy drawing upon the insights they gather from key decision makers in their respective areas of focus.
During pre-launch, they work in the field to identify those HCPs and KOLs who will carry the most influence among their peers. They provide scientific information to this group while building relationships and uncovering valuable insights they report to their organizations. They also can work internally, to conduct trainings and support clinical trials. Post launch MSLs move to a different role where in addition to their meetings with KOLs, they attend Medical related conferences, manage new sponsored research, provide support in HEOR and market access, and help plan prioritized medical publications.
In keeping with the industry shift to greater transparency, MSLs do not engage in promotional initiatives. Rather, they focus on candid, transparent discussions on the “science behind the medicine.” They deliver data and facts, and in so doing, develop a collegial, trusting relationship with the KOLs. In this role, MSLs are greatly impacting the trajectory of new and emerging medicines, and as such, ultimately impacting the lives of patients who might benefit from them.
Creating an impactful MSL team
Certainly, providing KOLs with key scientific information on a new treatment is critical; however, the value of that interaction resides in the relationship that is being built. “To foster relationship building, an MSL must have more than a scientific pedigree,” notes Ashfield Engage’s Jeff Vaughan, Director, Field Medical Science. “The MSL must be one who can carry on conversational medicine – someone who has the soft skills and emotional intelligence to engage.”
A scientific or clinical background does not always translate to an MSL being an engaging presenter or conversationalist. A successful MSL, and the ultimate MSL team, will be built with individuals who have the necessary scientific background as well as likable personalities and fine-tuned active listening and presentation skills with the end goal to be perceived as genuine. They will innately know how to ask the right questions to gain market insights and understand HCPs, and be able to recognize knowledge gaps, and in turn, acknowledge and respond to unmet educational needs.
Adding to this profile is the need for digital proclivity. Today’s healthcare environment has been irrevocably changed to incorporate virtual interactions and digital delivery of content. In fact, 66% of HCPs want MSLs to continue to utilize virtual options after the pandemic restrictions cease.2 MSLs need to feel confident in both an in-person and virtual presentations and be supported by the appropriate content for each communication channel. It can be quite easy for a KOL to be distracted during a virtual presentation, so it is important to keep content as engaging as possible with approaches such as videos, interactive presentations, infographics, animations, or even virtual reality. The MSL should be trained to pick up on visual cues and pivot appropriately to a more engaging approach. In addition to virtual presentations, the MSL needs to be well versed in omnichannel communication to orchestrate more impactful engagements.
Delivering recognized value
An MSL who develops an engaging relationship with a KOL, which can ultimately impact a patient, is delivering value. When an MSL doesn’t collaborate broadly with other pharma representatives within their territory, oftentimes this value can be overlooked. To avoid any false perceptions by management on the value brought to the brand by MSLs, all MSLs should first do strategic planning in their respective territories to identify the most appropriate resources at their disposal for each interaction. These resources should include those other representatives working within their territory who can help fully engage the KOLs. Once they are working within their territory, they should pass along to management any actionable insights, either directly or through their colleague network so that the value they offer the organization is clearly evident. It is critical for MSLs to understand how the feedback they receive impacts others within the organization. Working collaboratively within the organization is how the true value of the MSL is recognized. Collaborators for MSLs might include Sales, Marketing, Contact center team, Regional and divisional account managers; HEOR specialists; and government affairs teams. As collaboration occurs, management should also be engaged and aware of the territory strategies.
Since the MSL does not offer promotional information, the MSL must be mindful to remain compliant with organizational policies. “The MSL needs to establish a clear communication process for what should be done when the conversation is not medically based,” notes Jeff Vaughan. “There has to be a clear compliance pathway established to cover all possibilities, as it is better to ask permission than forgiveness when satisfying a need outside the medical conversation.” To accomplish this, the MSL should work to identify the roles and responsibilities of colleagues within the organization, so future needs of the KOL can be handled appropriately and compliantly.
An MSL team who can demonstrate to management how it has worked with other stakeholders in the organization to deliver value to its KOLs and is able to deliver actionable insights that impact strategy and execution, is an MSL team that will be recognized for delivering value. Those MSLs who understand the significance of their role and its impact on patient care are in a unique position to relay data and insights that will continue to help their organizations meet the existing and unmet needs in the marketplace.
2 Dr. Samuel Dyer and Ariel Katz. “KOLs reveal how they prefer to engage with MSLs during the COVID-19 pandemic”. https://themsljournal.com/article/kols-reveal-how-they-prefer-to-engage-with-msls-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/