Due to the nature of field medical teams being spread across the country, Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) were already accustomed to working virtually with field colleagues and headquarters. However, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the boundaries of the virtual environment to now include virtual engagements with external thought leaders. Now with over a year of virtual scientific conversations and conferences, a current topic in the MSL community is whether we should continue working virtually as we evolve during this challenging time and look to the future after the pandemic. In this article, we would like to dive into what we’ve learned regarding virtual engagement as it relates to external thought leader engagement.
The initial shift to virtual scientific exchange with external thought leaders was a significant undertaking by MSLs. Over a matter of days, MSLs quickly adjusted to various virtual meeting platforms and assisted their external thought leaders in shifting to the virtual environment. Now, working virtually has become the new norm with many positive aspects. Some positives include an increase in efficiency, accessibility, and enhancement of scientific exchange. Instead of coordinating several meetings in the same geography to optimize travel time, MSLs can virtually jump from city to city based on thought leader availability and even accommodate same-day appointments as travel time is not a factor. This not only increases an MSL’s efficiency and accessibility in covering one’s territory but also decreases the carbon footprint associated with the travel usually necessary for these meetings. Virtual meetings are also highly efficient for scientific exchange. The virtual environment sets the stage for more transactional information exchange and makes the sharing of visual scientific content a smoother process. In live interactions pulling up slides is not always feasible or desirable. However, in the virtual setting, presenting information with the ease of a share screen button has been transformative for scientific exchange. With the audience focused on the screen, pulling up data for a scientific exchange enhances the virtual engagement and feels natural. This sharing of data has not been unidirectional with many thought leaders also feeling comfortable utilizing the share screen button themselves. Many thought leaders have expressed their preference for continued virtual exchange as part of their interactions with MSLs.
Despite the positive characteristics of virtual engagements, one must consider the limitations of pivoting away from face-to-face interactions. It goes without saying that virtual engagements with thought leaders are less personal. The inability to establish a full human connection may prove problematic for high-stake meetings due to the difficulty in expressing non-nonverbal cues which enhance communication. If the thought leader is less engaged in the virtual setting, it will difficult to ask probing questions. When meeting with thought leaders at an office or hospital, MSLs have the ability to assess the environment and connect on a personal level (i.e diplomas, awards, memorabilia). With the reality of decreased access for the industry in healthcare systems, maintaining visibility and creating relationships with office/hospital staff can also be of value.
Many internal and external meetings for thought leaders have transitioned to virtual platforms over the past year. Frequently, people have expressed screen fatigue or being “zoomed out”, resulting in less interaction and attention. Similarly, when presenting or conversing with multiple thought leaders that are located in the same room, one may encounter additional barriers, such as the inability to see facial expressions and attentiveness, resulting in an unwelcoming and distracting setting. Although less common, it is important to remember that technical skills to log on to a virtual platform may be challenging for some individuals. If technical or internet issues arise, this may result in no interaction, with both parties feeling frustrated.
As it relates to virtual conferences, the ability to bring people together to discuss new and impactful data is extremely important. Therefore, the lack of networking is the biggest disadvantage. During live conferences, MSLs have the opportunity to engage with thought leaders in between presentations and during downtime. This provides freedom to have scientific engagements and obtain insight. In the virtual setting, this may not occur based on the platform or if the presentation is pre-recorded. Most importantly, conferences provide the MSL the opportunity to meet with top thought leaders who are otherwise difficult to meet in any other environment. During live presentations, MSLs can gauge the audience’s response and the level of engagement. The question and answer session in person is more effective and revealing compared to the anonymous chatbox.
Overall, there are positive and negative aspects to virtual and in-person engagements with external thought leaders. MSLs should continue to interact with thought leaders in person but flex to the remote setting if there are issues related to COVID, access, travel, or thought leader preference. The COVID pandemic has accelerated the ability to engage with thought leaders in the virtual setting, however, this should not entirely replace live interactions. In the future, we foresee both virtual and in-person meetings being part of the MSLs’ repertoire to achieve success in their territories.
Tania Gregorian, PharmD, BCACP
Dr. Tania Gregorian, PharmD, BCACP is Medical Science Liaison at AstraZeneca in Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases. As an MSL she is passionate about supporting evidence-based medicine to improve patient outcomes. Prior to becoming an MSL, she was an Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice at Chapman University School of Pharmacy and faculty in practice at Cedars Sinai Medical Care Foundation. She received her Doctor of Pharmacy degree and completed post-graduate residency training at the University of Southern California. Dr. Gregorian has managed multiple chronic disease states under collaborative practice agreements and protocols in the ambulatory care setting. She provided patient care and taught in many primary care areas such as diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidemia, and immunizations in addition to subspecialties in pain management and travel health. She currently resides in Burbank, CA with her family.
Kristina Kipp, PharmD
Dr. Kristina Kipp, PharmD is a Medical Science Liaison at AstraZeneca in Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease. She received her Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, University of the Sciences. She completed 2 years of post-graduate residency training (Pharmacy Practice and Cardiology) at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Prior to becoming an MSL, she worked as an Emergency Medicine Clinical Pharmacy Specialist. In her current role, she is passionate about improving cardiovascular outcomes as it relates to hospitalization and mortality. She currently resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her family.