Adjusting to the Changing Role of the MSL

The rapid adoption of digital engagement has changed, and continues to modify, the way medical science liaisons (MSLs) work. While COVID-19 demanded 100% virtual engagement for a time, a more hybrid model of interacting with customers and stakeholders is increasingly gaining traction, with many even considering it preferable to in-person-only engagement.

The informality of in-person meetings and relationship building may be difficult to replicate online, but MSLs have learned how to adapt and work smarter in a remote setting. As a result, organizations are now determining how to make the most of a blended approach to engagement moving forward. Here are key takeaways from our recent roundtable discussion with field medical leaders at this year’s Veeva Commercial & Medical Summit Connect, North America.

How has the landscape changed?

Digital transformation in healthcare was already happening prior to COVID, helping accelerate the personalization of patient care. Thanks to improved access to information, patients can now have more educated discussions with their HCPs on treatment plans. Meanwhile, big data is fueling greater innovation, faster decision making, and much more agile product approvals by the FDA, making drug delivery increasingly more efficient.

Consequently, medical organizations are now more empowered to deliver data-driven insights and work more strategically to share knowledge and information across every stage in the ecosystem—from early R&D, product development and pre-launch activities, to go-to-market strategies and data interpretation for HCPs. Indeed, as the people who had the most contact with HCPs during the pandemic, MSLs’ insights and information gathering were pivotal to influencing commercial strategies over the last year.

Throughout it all, MSLs have had to be flexible and adapt to new ways of engaging through a different mix of channels, based on HCPs’ different preferences and needs. It’s undoubtedly testament to the relationships that were built pre-COVID that those trusted partnerships remain to some degree, although new audiences have been reached as well.

New audiences, new responsibilities

Last year, there was more demand for medical than ever—and a real opportunity for MSLs to reach more stakeholders unconstrained by geography. Digital channels have made it easier for MSLs to pinpoint key opinion leaders (KOLs), look at what they may be publishing, deliver engaging content to share with them, and subsequently track those touchpoints to see if they made a demonstrable difference to the patient journey.

As a result, organizations have realized that MSLs can contribute beyond engagement alone and can take a larger role in identifying and supporting investigators for studies. Their responsibility has taken on greater depth to support scientific discussions, acting as the eyes and ears for a study. Earlier pipeline discussions and a better understanding of what investigators are doing has also given MSLs an opportunity to partner with R&D.

In rare disease, clinical development organizations may be capable of executing studies and plans but can lack the relationships that MSLs have to assist with the execution. Working with field medical to develop these relationships allows for a ‘warm handoff’ to clinical to help with enrollment in a study. And in support of trials, MSLs are also key to bringing important medical insights around protocols or competitors back to the R&D team.

Medical congresses have been particularly challenging in a virtual environment, making it harder to make connections and build relationships. But the benefits still outweigh the drawbacks—by taking these meetings online and allowing sessions to be downloaded and consumed at a more convenient time, medical teams have seen broader engagement with entirely new KOLs.

Meeting KOLs where they are

In the last 18 months, MSLs have had to deal with an expanding number of stakeholder audiences, including pharmacists, nurse practitioners and peers, as well as new digital medical influences. KOLs have been sharing their knowledge online more than ever, and that provides another channel that they should pay attention to.

In today’s age of digital influencers, medical teams must consider the role of the digital KOL and their online impact, including who is following them so they can get involved in the wider conversation. MSLs can improve engagement by having access to real-time customer intelligence data using a solution like Veeva Link. They’d know whenever a KOL publishes a research paper, tweets a new collaboration idea, or makes a new connection of interest, allowing them to have relevant and timely conversations with key customers.

Podcasts are another channel that has grown in volume and relevancy, with many KOLs and physicians starting their own series. As additional communication channels open up, MSLs must make it a priority to better understand how to identify and participate with digital leaders via their chosen medium to bring about greater success.

Are you setting your MSLs up for success?

In this newly enhanced customer-facing role, MSLs need the right tools and resources to identify and understand which KOLs to engage with and what type of personalized content to share. They also need to work in close partnership with the medical home office while understanding healthcare systems, scientific evidence, and customer information, which is driving further data generation and dissemination.

Feedback from our roundtable attendees suggests that field medical leaders are feeling MSLs are “somewhat to moderately equipped” to meet the demands of the new engagement landscape. Arming medical teams with the right engagement tools will help them take advantage of new opportunities that come with digital and thrive in a hybrid world.

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