The COVID pandemic accelerated the evolution of the MSL profession in ways that will propel, expand, and enhance the contributions a Medical Affairs function makes across the pharmaceutical industry moving forward. This bold claim is supported by my turbulent, yet humbling journey over the past three years which saw my career moving from the comforts of an MSL at a big pharmaceutical company to the opposite end of the spectrum serving as an MSL at small, higher-risk start-up biotech during the height of the pandemic. I hope this story inspires fellow MSL colleagues across the industry to embrace this ongoing evolution in the hopes of raising the performance standard and value contributions of one of the greatest professions in the world!
The Medical Affairs function, specifically, the MSL position has been deeply entrenched as a primary medical support role across the majority of the industry. I feel compelled to make the argument that this myopic and antediluvian perspective is no longer representative of the modern-day MSL. Today’s MSL brings a tremendous degree of scientific, medical, and business acumen that adapts to the changing needs cross-functionally in all pharmaceutical corporations. This adaptation is what will inevitably enhance the core purpose of what we do, to enhance patient care and help advance the scientific needle.
My transition away from big pharma was predicated on the desire to learn and become better at the MSL craft. Personally speaking, there is no better setting to do this than to situate yourself in a small biotech company where the levels of risk, time, and resources are all too high, fast, and scarce. Going outside the comfort zone was one thing, however, experiencing this new MSL environment under the unexpected pretense of COVID cultivated a survival approach that invariably led me to push the boundaries of innovation, and collaboration, and to generate significant value for our company, which then translated to improved patient care. Consequently, this opened my eyes and inspired me to see that an MSL could make valuable contributions in excess of any standard MSL job description I ever came across.
Everyone recalls the arduous period when physician offices and hospitals were shutting down due to COVID concerns. This did not bode well for me as an MSL who was representing a new FDA-approved drug. To make matters worse, the drug I represented was also affixed to a necessary procedure to aid in delivery, preferably in an operating room. With so many physicians closing their doors to industry and the lack of live scientific conferences, the MSL role almost appeared to go backward. This is where the evolution and growth as a modern-day MSL began for me.
Rather than take the circumstances for face value, I utilized innovative strategies to engage top experts in safe and efficient ways. These included unconventional methodologies such as arranging virtual meals, outdoor picnics, and waiting outside parking garages or designated open break areas for the opportunity to engage physicians for a few precious minutes. I found my thought leaders grateful to connect with an MSL amidst the rampant social distancing restrictions being imposed across the country. The interactions appeared to allow my experts a brief momentary escape from the everyday stress and provided several benefits including valuable scientific exchange, knowledge gain, camaraderie, and a chance to move forward together.
These innovative expert engagement strategies also provided a valuable business opportunity for my cross-functional stakeholders to make introductions that would otherwise not be afforded to them due to pandemic restrictions. Despite a recent FDA approval, the opportunities for expert engagements were extremely difficult to come by. The ability to compliantly navigate this challenging climate as an MSL afforded my Commercial colleagues the rare opportunity to meet their customers. Additional downstream networks were forged among critical internal stakeholders in Marketing, Business Development, Clinical Development, and even some of our C-suite Executive Leaders.
The modern MSL needs to innovate and collaborate with sharp business acumen. The follow-up deliverables that resulted from an MSL proactively liaising introductions with KOLs created a plethora of meaningful patient care initiatives ranging from robust education programs, critical partnerships with patient advocacy groups, and far-reaching scientific data generation and dissemination to healthcare providers.
Although we are not guided by promotion and revenue generation, there is a distinct line MSLs can walk in a compliant fashion that addresses the needs of both Medical and Commercial without compromising ethics and motivations. It is imperative that the modern MSL recognize this opportunity and approach their daily responsibilities related to business implications with aplomb. Furthermore, the modern MSL has access to countless resources and the ability to deliver value to almost every corporate function, thus making it one of the most unique and versatile positions in the pharmaceutical industry.
In retrospect, I look back at the past few years with disdain at the loss of innocent life, family tragedies, and the economic hardship COVID produced. However, through this pain and suffering, we must move forward and continue to grow and learn. Our patients demand this commitment from us and I am proud to say that amidst the difficult circumstances our industry has gone through, I can humbly say that being an MSL has provided a beacon of hope and purpose to honor those we lost.
The MSL profession has grown exponentially during the past few years and I am confident it will remain on this trajectory as we become more innovative, collaborative, and business-minded for the sake of improving patient care through new medical treatments, forging synergistic alliances, and improving access to care to more patients around the world.
Michael Shim, PharmD
Michael Shim serves as the Medical Affairs Manager for the division of Deployment Solutions at Syneos Health. He is an accomplished and innovative leader with experience in oncology and rare disease and is passionate about strategic planning to support product launches and developing operational enhancements to optimize Medical Affairs excellence.