For 13 months COVID-19 has dominated every aspect of our personal and professional lives. Now as vaccinations in large numbers are a reality (at least in some countries) and people are eager to put this challenging time behind them, we will need to ponder the question of what we learned from this pandemic and whether anything good will come out of it. Here, we take a look at medical affairs and specifically medical science liaisons who were heavily impacted by the sudden changes related to COVID restrictions. Their main customers, healthcare professionals, had no time to spare and their usual way of communicating face-to-face was suspended overnight. Medical affairs, especially MSLs had to scramble to reinvent how they are doing their job and had to pick up new skills in a hurry. Some of these adjustments will turn out to be just that – short-term modifications – others have proven to be valuable and will continue to be part of how field medical engages healthcare professionals (HCPs) and key opinion leaders (KOLs) in the future. Here are six ways of how COVID may have a lasting impact on medical affairs – for the better:
- Balancing travel and Zoom– finding a balance between all in-person and all virtual engagement. In March 2020 medical affairs had to adopt radically different ways of engaging HCPs and KOLs. Virtual communication was the only option and, despite initial issues, has become the new normal. While Zoom fatigue is real, going back to the old model of all in-person meetings isn’t the answer either. Now that both HCPs and MSLs have learned to use virtual communication tools, a hybrid model makes sense: occasional in-person meetings with more frequent virtual touchpoints in between. Less travel will free up MSL time for other tasks and KOLs can fit shorter meetings more easily into their schedules.
- Shorter, more frequent KOL interactions – what started out as a huge challenge, engaging HCPs in a time of crisis using email, text messages, or phone calls has turned out to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise. True, initially it was very difficult for MSLs to get the attention of HCPs, but once the new communication format was more established, it led to a new dynamic of shorter, but more frequent interactions with substantially reduced lead times. While getting a face-to-face meeting on the calendar could take four weeks or more, video calls can often be arranged for the same or the following week. Shorter, more frequent meetings give MSLs the opportunity to share information and data on a short-notice basis and add ongoing value to their KOLs.
- Focused, personalized content increases MSL value – having this new dynamic of shorter three 15-minute instead of one 45-minute meetings forces discipline: the agenda needs to be tight, the information new and relevant to each KOL. With less time to figure out what the KOL really wants to know during the meeting, the MSL needs to be prepared with information that meets the KOLs information needs. Standard presentations are a thing of the past. On the bright side, this forces MSLs to really understand their KOLs and allows more focused, concise, and personalized engagements. Technology can help to provide that information asynchronously, e.g. by sending a quick link to a newly published paper the KOL will find valuable.
- Embracing a data-driven approach – waiting for a connecting flight or sitting in rush hour traffic ate up an enormous amount of MSL time before the COVID travel restrictions. During the pandemic, MSLs have been using some of that time to do research, e.g. to identify additional HCPs in their territories. Comprehensive databases also allow them to learn more about the scientific, clinical, and medical activities and interests of their KOLs as well as their formal (e.g. based on co-authorship) and informal (e.g. based on the same affiliation or attending the same medical school) relationship networks. That knowledge can be used to develop more comprehensive profiles of KOLs making it possible to provide personalized information and help networking with new KOLs.
- Leveraging teamwork– hiring freezes, postponed product launches, too much work in some groups, not enough in others led to redeployment of people, increased cross-training, and more cross-functional assignments. Colleagues nationally and globally started working together more closely to share knowledge and experiences.Examples include pulling in colleagues from the severely impacted commercial team to take on activities such as market analysis for launch planning or getting field medical involved with advisory board planning or literature review for new products. A positive side effect, in addition to skill expansion, is increased visibility of medical affairs across the organization and with that a better appreciation of the myriads of tasks medical affairs is responsible for and the value it brings to the organization.
- Finding ways to parallel track – product launch activities and clinical trials came to an abrupt halt in early 2020 and teams are now struggling to catch up. One way to make up for the lost time is by parallel tracking some launch activities that otherwise were done sequentially, or weren’t done systematically, e.g. identifying local influencers in addition to national KOLs. This approach can inform how tasks can be streamlined in the future.