Early KOL Development Key to Acceptance

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The scientific exchange between medical science liaisons (MSLs) and healthcare professionals and advocates has grown richer and fuller in recent years. This has given Medical Affairs functions greater opportunities to build credibility with Key Opinion Leaders and others that work within or are served by the healthcare industry via MSLs and other field-based specialists.

An important link to the health-care community is the KOLs who can educate other physicians via published works, conference presentations and speaker programs. The importance of relationship building with KOLs cannot be overstated. For the pharmaceutical and medical device company, this means knowing the thought-leaders’ needs and helping them, if not directly, then by connecting them with the people who can help.

One hurdle that must be cleared while working with today’s thought-leaders is finding the right balance of providing scientific objectivity with the requirements of working within a commercial organization. While Medical Affairs may want to build fences around KOLs, corporate strategy at most pharma companies requires some level of commercial interaction to take place.

Ultimately, it is in the best interests of everyone involved to meet the needs of the Key Opinion Leaders, in whatever manner is suitable for the thought-leader. One manager of a thought-leader program at a Top 10 pharma company explained it this way: “Some of it is just relationship building and then helping them in their endeavors from the scientific perspective. So whether that be through the clinical trials to make sure that people are involved, you have to get investigators involved and you have to have KOLs involved as investigators. I think it’s just to understand what’s important to them and getting out there early.”

The idea of anyone but Medical Affairs having primary oversight for KOLs probably seems contrarian in today’s business environment. Could you imagine the uproar that would occur at the idea of a marketing group controlling such relationships and “product-pushing” as opposed to scientific engagement? Mature companies are not ready to release Medical Affairs from this role, at this time. But it means that medical affairs leaders must work hard to bridge the chasm between them and Commercial Operations to ensure that all KOL and corporate needs are being met.

Recent research that Best Practices conducted supports the notion that Medical Affairs controls this lever in the management system. The study found that 72 percent of companies hold Medical Affairs responsible for their thought-leader management programs. Only 14 percent have Marketing oversee the management program, and most of these companies tend to be smaller organizations that are working toward growing their businesses in a methodical nature.

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