For several years, Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) have gradually reduced engagements with life sciences companies, limiting the time they allot for calls and face-to-face meetings. Some organizations, weary of seeing multiple individuals from the same company, have gone so far as to limit the slots available to any particular company within a specific timeframe. In general, however, Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) have continued to interact with KOLs through virtual channels.
Select, peer-to-peer relationships
Due to their expert knowledge and evidence-based practice, large networks of professionals (medical school faculties, research institutions, health care organizations like insurance companies, GPOs, IDNs, state Medicaid committees, and even CMS) look to KOLs as invaluable resources. Often, they are renowned researchers and typically they're very active in their fields, serving on the boards of professional associations and presenting at major medical conferences. And, increasingly, they're prominent on social media, presenting as Digital Opinion Leaders (DOLs).
MSLs should be able to speak to many different areas of interest: clinical trials, new evidence in the literature, real world evidence from HEOR studies, and pharmacoecomonic data that impacts their customers' healthcare choices. KOLs, in turn, welcome MSLs as resources who provide the latest published literature on a disease, answer questions, and can hold peer-to-peer discussions.
Prior to COVID-19, life sciences companies typically focused their MSL attention on international and national KOLs, lacking the "bandwidth" to consistently engage regional and local KOLs. More recently, as meetings have become largely confined to virtual, this has opened time allowing the MSL to address educational gaps that have long plagued regional and local KOLs.
Interactions during the pandemic
The accelerated importance of MSLs in the COVID-19 pandemic is largely attributed to sudden disruption of previously routine practices. One such practice is the long-held concept that "reach and frequency" is the primary driver of pharmaceutical success. Where pharmaceutical organizations would typically rely on quantity of interactions with healthcare stakeholders—across all channels, but mostly face-to-face—social distancing policies and truncated time and attention of the healthcare community have dampened the effect of that methodology.
In just the past few months, a sea-change occurred where the priority of the "reach and frequency" strategy is replaced by a stronger reliance on scientific exchange and the value of evidence-based medicine. The MSLs, due to their scientific training, find themselves increasingly relied upon for communicating with physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and nurse practitioners. The key to maintaining the high value that HCPs place on MSL interactions is to make the MSL the single point of contact to company information and resources.
The Medical Science Liaison Society conducted a global survey which included 672 MSL professionals from 54 countries at the end of March 2020 on how COVID-19 was changing their ability to interact with KOLs and/or other healthcare providers. In the US, 61.1% of respondents reported that KOLs were "very or somewhat receptive" to virtual meetings. That number was somewhat lower globally, at 54.7%.¹
Best Practices to Attain/Maintain Contact with KOLs
Due to COVID-19, interactions with KOLS have been conducted via virtual platforms. This reality impacts established MSLs far less than new MSLs who have not yet had an opportunity to meet KOLs in person and to develop a relationship that can be sustained virtually.
In our experience, the following best practices can be very successful for MSLs:
- Maintain focus to continue the dissemination of knowledge – MSLs need to maintain focus on delivering the science needed to support KOLs in evidenced-based practice.
- Provide an engaging virtual experience – This requires being savvy and mastering the capabilities of their audio-visual tools and having captivating multi-media content to share. Often, this requires additional investment to enhance this communication in order to generate richer, more "attractive" experiences.
- Attend and be involved at scientific meetings – Although meetings and congresses have moved to virtual, MSLs can continue engagement by presenting virtually until in-person conferences resume.
- Ensure timely outreach – Many KOLs are receptive to being contacted after a medical conference to pursue discussions on specific content from the meeting.
- Expand your reach – Any travel time saved from meeting virtually can be applied to reaching regional and local KOLs who may not otherwise receive resolution to their scientific questions.
What Will the Future Bring?
While no one knows when MSLs will be able to meet in-person with KOLs again, some changes brought about by the pandemic will likely have some long-lasting impact on the way the job is done.
In the above-mentioned MSL Society survey, 43% of MSLs and 56% of their managers in the US and 45.5% of participants globally believed that there will be permanent changes. It seems probable, for instance, that remote meetings with KOLs will remain popular with KOLs and MSLs alike. They are convenient for KOLs, save travel time and costs for manufacturers, and when managed correctly, provide a richer source of data and information than is frequently delivered in-person.
And, given the success that MSLs are having in maintaining their relationships and providing critical information to KOLs, manufacturers may well want to expand their MSL resources – a trend that appeared to be taking shape even before the pandemic.
Learn more about how MSLs can reach KOLs, during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
¹"MSL Activities During the COVID-19 Pandemic," MSLS. www.themsls.org