Increased scrutiny and new regulation have seen pharma’s relationship with key opinion leaders (KOLs) undergo a paradigm shift in recent years. Sales and marketing teams are no longer the preferred point of contact, explains Dr Samuel Dyer of the Medical Science Liaison Society.
Historically, pharma companies have believed that their sales and marketing teams are of the most value to key opinion leaders (KOLs.) However, KOLs are increasingly reporting that they actually prefer to engage with, and place a much higher value on, the information they receive from Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs).
This perception of the value of the MSL role has resulted in a paradigm shift in the industry’s approach to KOL engagement. MSLs typically have strong clinical and educational backgrounds within the medical field and thus KOLs not only place a higher value on the information they receive from them but also prefer to interact with them. KOLs respond to the level and depth of clinical exchange that physicians have with MSLs, who are primarily focused on scientific exchange with KOLs.
Although the sales rep–physician relationship will continue to be vital to the success of pharmaceutical companies, and certainly should not be discounted or abandoned, physicians increasingly prefer to engage with MSLs because of their ability to have peer-to-peer scientific, non-promotional conversations.
A number of recent studies have highlighted this shift and continued trend. An interesting example is a 2011 study from Thought Leader Select, a KOL strategy and research firm. The company conducted an industry-wide study of KOLs in Endocrinology focused on a broad range of topics, including the KOLs’ perceptions of the industry, as well as with whom they preferred to engage.
In the study, 70 percent of veteran KOLs reported that they preferred and expected contact primarily with industry executives or an MSL. Strikingly, only three percent of this group reported that they would prefer to engage with someone from the sales or marketing teams. The data from the emerging KOLs resulted in similar conclusions. Although this group receives less direct attention from industry, the results show that nearly 60 percent of this group still prefers the MSL as their primary point of contact when interacting with pharma companies. The most revealing result from the survey of emerging KOLs was that none of them reported a preference for anyone from the sales and marketing team as their key point of contact.
This study also asked KOLs to rank the value of the information they obtain from the medical community as well as from MSLs or sales and marketing teams. Overall, as one might expect, KOLs place the highest value on the peer-to-peer interactions they have with other KOLs. They also place a high value on the information they gain through medical journals, professional society meetings, and continuing medical education programs. When questioned on their perception of the value of the information they receive from pharma, again, the results support the findings of previous studies. When compared to sales and marketing teams, these physicians placed a 30 percent higher value on the information they received from an MSL.
As a result of the increased value that MSLs provide to KOLs, the MSL role has seen explosive growth globally over the last several years and this is expected to continue. In a recent Medical Science Liaison Society survey, which included both MSLs and executive management, the Society asked over 600 participants from 43 countries if they felt their MSL teams would expand over the next one to two years, and, if so, by how much. A significant percentage of participants reported that they expected their respective MSL teams to grow by up to 20 percent in just the next two years. The MSL Society plans to present further detailed findings at its upcoming annual meeting in the spring of 2013.
Clearly, MSL will continue to grow in importance over the foreseeable future. In the value the role brings to KOL relationships in helping them advance medicines, it has become crucial to the success of global pharmaceutical companies.