KOLs stay in pharma’s lexicon but meaning evolves

If you’ve worked in Medical Affairs (MA) for a length of time, you’ve likely heard the menagerie of terms tied to the industry, with key opinion leader (KOL) almost always topping the jargon list.

And apparently, KOL as a term — and a concept — isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. At least, that was the takeaway from a recent Medical Science Liaison Society survey on the use of the acronym to identify medical influencers.

Although a small number of respondents claimed the term is no longer a major (or representative) part of pharma’s lexicon, more than 60 percent of healthcare executives who were surveyed said their company still used the term KOL. Those opposed to the term provided alternatives like “medical expert,” “thought leader,” and “scientific expert,” but they were the minority.

So for now, KOL lives. But what does this mean for medical affairs?

Indeed, while the term remains pervasive, its meaning has evolved — especially given the influx of younger-generation physicians, data scientists, researchers, analysts, and executives that are having a significant influence on the pharma industry.

Three New Kinds of KOLs That Deserve Your Attention

Several years ago, KOL stood its ground as a universal term that mainly described physicians whose measured impact on the development of drugs, devices, and other therapeutic approaches merited special investment to advance those therapies forward.

But now, the age-old term KOL has evolved to accommodate the rapidly evolving role of key players in the pharma space, chiefly among them:

1. Advanced Practice Nurses (APNs) and PAs

The numbers of APNs and PAs is predicted to grow rapidly in the coming years, with the Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimating that the number of jobs in the field will grow an estimated 30 percent between 2014 and 2024. And it’s not just their numbers that are growing — the power these healthcare professionals have is growing too (including prescriptive authority). Indeed, APNs and PAs are becoming ever more important and influential in the healthcare delivery space. Influential too, because many publish or present at medical conferences and CME events. To notinclude this emerging profession in the scope of KOL would be missing a significant opportunity.

2. Clinical Research Coordinators (CRCs)

The influential rise of CRCs also merits their inclusion as KOLs — and not just because they’re by default coordinating medical research. These individuals are required to understand the ins and outs of their investigational studies, from recruitment and consent to protocol adherence, Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval and more. Though principal investigators author the work in most cases, the CRCs manage the day-to-day advancement of it.

3. Data Scientists and Analysts

Driven by the world of Big Data, these influential leaders assess the heaps of data outputs generated by scientific research, analyzing patterns and trends as they emerge. Years ago, they may not have been considered KOLs themselves, but the emphasis on data trends and data science merits their inclusion as leaders to watch.

Pharma and Medical Affairs professionals are likely to continue to embrace the KOL term, but should be clear on the expansion of its meaning, especially as the healthcare industry continues to evolve.