According to a 2021 survey, Doctors of Pharmacy (PharmD) make up approximately 42% of all medical science liaisons (MSL); another statistic highlighting the evolution of pharmacists away from traditional dispensing roles.¹ While pharmacists add value to a variety of roles, their skills align closely with those required by MSLs. A PharmD degree is typically obtained after four professional education years preceded by two prerequisite coursework years. The first three years are didactic instruction consisting of pharmacotherapy, medicinal chemistry, pharmacology, pharmacokinetics, and pharmacodynamics. The final clinical experience year consists of advanced practice pharmacy experiences (APPEs); usually, six to nine rotations varying in duration from four to six weeks. This extensive medical education prepares pharmacists to understand diverse therapeutic areas, engage in scientific exchange, and maintain strong clinical acumen. Pharmacy learners also gain skills necessary to understand the inner workings of healthcare systems and critique primary drug literature, competencies central to the MSL role. Finally, professional development components such as emotional intelligence, leadership, and clinical reasoning can contribute to relationship-building and field medical success.
While the pharmacy curriculum prepares students with several transferable skills, education in the biopharmaceutical industry is lacking. As evident by the growing number of biopharmaceutical fellowship positions, students are increasingly interested in this career path. However, gaining direct industry experience continues to be a significant challenge. While MSL teams can give pharmacy students a highly sought-after experience, these field teams can themselves reap concrete benefits by taking learners, with appropriate planning and goal setting.
Team Education and Training
By leveraging existing medical knowledge and drug literature review skills, students can create journal clubs, prepare micro-learning sessions, update existing training documents, and deliver a variety of presentations. Students can learn about resources used by MSLs and develop writing, research, and presentation skills. Importantly, these activities keep the field medical team abreast of the current therapeutic landscape and keep resources functional.
Congress Planning and Coverage
Large medical congresses are critical for MSLs and a quality learning opportunity for students. Detail-oriented students can create digital platform access guides and present pre-congress slides. After sharing key aspects of medical strategy, learners can be assigned specific abstracts, oral presentations, and sessions to cover virtually. Students can learn about emerging treatments and navigate conferences. During post-congress debriefs, students and preceptors can generate high-quality insights.
In addition to congresses, students can generate insights through 1:1 KOL engagements, pipeline presentations, advisory boards, and social media coverage. Students can provide a fresh perspective to seasoned MSLs, leading to previously overlooked insights, and learn about a core MSL competency.
By leveraging their extensive baseline knowledge and ability to understand new information, students can effectively gather competitive intelligence. They can investigate data in recent publications and understand digital opinion leaders’ viewpoints through social media platforms. Monitoring landscapes leads to insight generation and competitive intelligence reports to be used for team education.
Despite these advantages, there are only a few student positions due to perceived barriers faced by MSLs. Time may be a constraint, but the responsibility of precepting a student does not have to fall on one MSL or even one team. Distributing the seemingly large 6-week commitment into mini-rotations will allow the student to rotate with different preceptors while alleviating stress on any one team member. PharmD fellows can also be incorporated into rotation design; assigning fellows as preceptors may simultaneously meet requirements for their learning program and relieve MSLs.
The logistical aspects of hosting a student may seem daunting at first. Fortunately, pharmacy schools have staff dedicated to facilitating student rotations. By building a relationship with a university, field medical teams may be assured that students placed on rotation will meet preferred prerequisites and qualifications. Ideally, students will need corporate access in order to function as valuable team members; however, internal human resources (HR) personnel can assist with this process. Early communication with HR to anticipate necessary requirements such as confidentiality agreements and background checks will result in a smooth onboarding process. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmacy students have adjusted to remote learning, so they are more prepared than ever to adjust to the remote nature of field medical affairs work.
While human resource logistics and time management may challenge the MSL team upfront, rotations rapidly become more efficient with each subsequent student and the positive impact of students on team efforts becomes more apparent. Investing in the education and development of students may result in more qualified future MSLs. Furthermore, exposing young talent to company culture and opportunities serves to impress future applicants. Assuming current trends continue, today’s pharmacy students will eventually account for 42% of MSL teams; thus investment in the talent pipeline will yield returns in recruitment and retention for years.
Tips for success…
- Consider how many students may be precepted each year and when. By separating the time between students, projects will be repeatable but continue to serve the team in a purposeful way.
- Use the first week to orient the student to the biopharmaceutical industry, the company, and the field medical. Utilize team-specific and company-wide training.
- Tailor the rotation to each student’s unique capabilities. Assess the interests and goals of the student early in the rotation and assign projects that closely align.
- Consider the needs of the team and how the student can address them. Solicit a list from the field medical team before the student starts.
- Ask MSLs with PharmDs to get involved and leverage their understanding of the APPE rotation process and expectations for student education.
- Create a project manual and weekly objectives to orient the learner and allow them to function independently.
- Topic discussions, whether MSL-led or even better student-led, are an excellent active teaching tool, especially when paired with pre-reading assignments. Sample subjects: MSL best practices, investigator and company-sponsored studies, product lifecycle, medical strategy, insight generation, advisory boards, cross-functional collaboration, key performance indicators, etc.
- In addition to regular communication, schedule weekly touch points with the student to provide feedback as the rotation progresses.
- Global MSL Salary & Compensation Survey. 2021 MSL Society
Melissa Madigan, BS, PharmD Candidate ‘23
Melissa Madigan is a PharmD candidate at MCPHS University. Upon graduation, Melissa is dedicated to pursuing a career as a medical science liaison. Prior to attending pharmacy school, she earned her BS in biology from Stony Brook University. Melissa’s biopharmaceutical industry experience involves an advanced practice pharmacy rotation with Sanofi’s US Hematology/Oncology Field Medical team. She is passionate about building relationships to share knowledge and elevate those around her. She welcomes connections on LinkedIn.
Megan Hartranft, PharmD, BCOP
Megan Hartranft is Clinical Lead with the Clinical and Digital Solutions team at Labcorp Diagnostics. At the time of writing, she was Field Medical Scientific Associate Director of Training for Sanofi’s US Oncology MSL team. She is also an adjunct assistant clinical professor with Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. Megan has published and presented extensively on topics of oncology, hematology, and precision medicine. A tireless advocate for cancer patient access to pharmacist care, Megan is an active member of the Hematology/Oncology Pharmacy Association. She welcomes connections on Twitter @MeganPharmD.