Let’s begin at the ending: there must be optimism about the changes for the MSL role after the pandemic.
By looking at the world in these present moments, there is uncertainty about how jobs will be affected. Will there be restructuring in the company organization? Are selection processes being paused or cancelled? Will my position still be profitable or doable? After interviewing several MSLs, we will review the actual circumstances MSLs are managing, and the future scenarios post pandemic. Interviewees included four experienced MSLs from different pharmaceutical companies, from a small national biotech to big pharmas, with four to eight years of experience in the role. Interviews were conducted by telephone and consisted of open questions discussing different topics regarding their role, experiences, and impressions about the evolution of the situation.
MSLs have a clear and crucial role being the scientific intermediary between the pharma and the health care providers (HCPs) and key opinion leaders (KOLs.) The strength of novel and advanced drug launches depends on the quality of the relationships between them. These interactions need to be bidirectional as both benefit from the sharing of information.
Most of the pharmaceutical companies evaluated MSL activity by using different qualitative and quantitative key performance indicators (KPIs.) The number, duration or quality of the interactions measured, was used to redirect the strategy and improve the results. However, according to the MSLS COVID-19 survey1, the KOL engagement or access has been reduced up to 70% in most cases during the last months, especially in those therapeutic areas where the specialists are required at the front lines. Physical meetings with healthcare professionals have been prohibited. Many KOLs are inundated with work and reject any kind of interaction, including virtual. This experience has led the companies to readjust the metrics used to evaluate their MSLs, and the MSLs have been forced to promote new approaches to achieve successful performances. The interactions have been mostly reactive, limited to provide information when the KOL required it, or active just in case of treatment and COVID-19 related updates.
However, this is a temporary situation that will change once we are able to deal with the virus and recover to our so-called new normal. Until then, while maintaining most of their internal and classical duties or projects unaffected, medical departments are rapidly transitioning their MSL network to the remote and virtual work as a result of travel restrictions and bans. As the crisis stabilizes, more engagements are scheduled. Therefore, companies are providing the tools and information to their teams responsible for ensuring the success of the new meeting format with KOLs.
The use and enhancement of digital resources to optimize the communication and virtual interactions has become a reality instead of a goal. The digitalization of their routines appeared as a slow process prior to the pandemic. In these times the willingness to adapt and cooperate has dramatically increased.
The interviewees agree that this situation can be positive for the MSL role. Scientific information exchange will always be necessary, and the MSL role is one of the fastest growing in industry. The value of the MSL role will survive the pandemic, likely changing the form but not the functions. The virtual meetings will bring benefits to both the physicians and the MSLs. Interactions will be shorter and concise, focusing on the topic previously accorded, providing more flexibility, access and optimizing time. International advisory boards and conferences will offer stimulation and networking, bringing an added value to the scientific dissemination and allowing more interconnection between hospitals and countries. By reducing the amount of travel, there will be economic savings for the company while also providing a better family-work balance, one of the main downsides MSLs discuss.
We cannot dismiss some existing limitations and pharma companies will need to redefine their strategies to overcome them. Some HCPs may be unwilling to change, as some may not adapt well to the use of technology or will not use their consultation hours at the hospital or clinic for virtual meetings, forcing the MSL to adapt to their schedules even more than before. Logistical barriers may remain a problem in some centres, but fortunately, technologic advances regarding communication systems are accessible worldwide. MSLs will need to improve their communication skills on the phone, and learn to read their clients and express themselves only with the voice or video. In other words, adapt or perish.
If we can overcome these drawbacks, the actual situation can be an opportunity to improve the performance of the MSL teams. The interviewees also agree on the great importance of not losing the face to face meetings, key for establishing long lasting relationships with the KOLs. While virtual meetings will clearly provide benefits, physical interactions are necessary to create relationships, building trust and credibility. The essence of the MSL is this interaction and we must prevent the reduction of these physical meetings to avoid the negative impact on the KOL relationship and the scientific value of the MSL. A total transition to a virtual MSL will completely change (and obliterate) the value of the role. According to the interviewees, at least half of the meetings must be face to face. MSLs will need to do a value proposition and decide which type of meeting is best for each moment and content, making the best of each engagement.
Knowing that there will be a learning process and that MSLs must be willing to adapt and redesign their strategies to the new context, the future perspectives for the MSL role after the pandemic are clearly optimistic. This time in history may have only accelerated a predestined change for the role. If well performed, this transition may be extremely positive for the role and the medical department projects.
1 MSL Activities During the COVID-19 Pandemic (2020). Medical Science Liaison Society. Available on https://www.themsls.org/covid-19-survey-results/
Clara Serrano-Novillo is an embryologist with a PhD Biomedicine from the University of Barcelona with more than 8 years of experience in research on cardiovascular physiology and cancer. During her career, she has worked cross-functionally with healthcare professionals and patients, enhancing teamwork and achieving a complete vision of projects in their entirety. Recently, Dr. Serrano-Novillo completed a Masters in management of Medical Departments from the ESAME Pharmaceutical Business School to focus on medical affairs with an interest in the MSL role. She enjoys new opportunities to leverage her scientific knowledge, learning capability and healthcare management abilities.