Pharmaceutical company personnel often fail to appreciate the value of Medical Affairs and its Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs). They are underestimated, neglected, and considered just a support function unless they deliver results that are seen as important. Maximizing their value can be challenging but, with big data analytics, not impossible.
There HAD To Be A Better Way
Initially, the MSL role was created by the Upjohn Company in the late 1960s and trademarked in 1978. It was staffed by MSLs with a focus on interacting with healthcare professionals, especially in specialty care, who were interested in performing “Investigator Sponsored Research.” Back then, the MSL role was not significantly regulated.
That changed dramatically in the mid-2000s. After pharmaceutical companies were forced to settle several cases of off-label drug promotion and pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines, PhRMA introduced the Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals (the “PhRMA Code”) in April 2002. One year later, the Office of Inspector General Compliance Program Guidance for Pharmaceutical Manufacturers was introduced.
MSLs: The Scientific Face of Pharma
Since those less regulated days, the MSL role has changed significantly. One notable change was the move of MSLs to Medical Affairs.
Now, as part of Medical Affairs, MSLs have more responsibilities than ever. They have become the field-facing medical and scientific arm of pharmaceutical companies. Not only do they interact proactively with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), they also respond to unsolicited off-label questions, interact with healthcare professionals interested in performing Investigator Sponsored Research, give on-label or responsive off-label presentations, identify study sites for company-sponsored research and provide important information to internal colleagues based upon information gained in the field.
Strategies to Maximize MSL Impact
So, given their myriad responsibilities, how can MSLs ensure the best returns on their efforts to support patients, healthcare professionals and internal colleagues?
When Medical Affairs is effective, it makes it easier for patients to receive the right treatment at the right time by providing healthcare professionals with the best, most comprehensive information.
MSL groups have extremely thorough knowledge of specific therapeutic areas and products. They are constrained, however, by small teams – especially in relation to sales teams – so their reach is limited. To counter this, MSLs need to interact with the key opinion leaders who have the greatest prestige within their specialties and, therefore, help facilitate patients getting the right treatments.
Working with the right KOLs is important for a number of reasons, including:
- Other healthcare professionals look to them for knowledge, advice and guidance.
- They help advance the science by conducting sponsored and supported clinical research.
- They contribute in guideline committees and, consequently, help develop treatment practices to benefit great numbers of patients.
Ensuring that these thought leaders base their opinions on the most current, most accurate, information is vital in delivering the greatest benefit to the greatest number of patients.
Because MSLs perform multiple functions within pharmaceutical companies, their impact easily can be under-appreciated. Part of this is due to the breadth of internal groups that MSLs generally support, including Medical Affairs, Clinical Development, Marketing and Market Access. To provide the greatest value and impact to these groups, MSLs must fully understand their needs and know the KOLs who can help fulfill those needs. Examples include:
- Knowing which KOLs who have extensive experience running company-sponsored clinical research.
- Knowing KOLs’ expertise in detail, including their involvement in clinical trials, patient treatment and crafting guidelines.
- Sharing KOLs’ knowledge with internal groups to inform their strategies and tactics.
At the end of the day, MSLs need current and accurate information to keep them informed about new and existing KOLs in their disease area. Influence mapping is one method, but has had data quality issues. Profiling also has value, but is a time-consuming and rather arbitrary approach.
Large data analytics is an attractive alternative. It employs unbiased data to quantify the expertise and activity of specific thought leaders. With comprehensive data and analytics on key opinion leaders, MSLs will have the best insights and greatest opportunity to maximize their impact, both externally and internally.