The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly had a profound impact on Field Medical Affairs. Has the Medical Science Liaison role changed forever? What new titles, trends, and opportunities might emerge as a result of the new age for Field Medical and the evolution of the Medical Science Liaison?
Is virtual engagement truly here to stay?
While the jury is still out on what percentage of KOL interaction and general business practice will be virtual, I am of the opinion that Field Medical Affairs will indeed go back to a predominantly live, face-to face-role with some – but limited – virtual engagement. The key to success for MSLs is to establish strong peer-to-peer relationships with KOLs and be seen as a true partner. It becomes significantly more difficult to achieve this virtually, so while it is certainly possible to perform the role through digital engagement, there is no real substitute for live face-to-face interaction. That said, virtual engagement and digital tools enhance the MSL role, and are certainly here to stay. To what degree and extent are still to be determined, but I expect the top-performing MSLs will know how to find the proper balance.
The REAL paradigm shift
While the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a dramatic paradigm shift for the entire world to navigate through, perhaps the most important trend facing the pharmaceutical industry is the surge in FDA drug approvals over the past 3 years. The FDA has and continues to outpace itself in new drug approvals. According to the Center for Drug Evaluation Research (CDER), there was a record of novel drug approvals in 2018 at 59, followed by 49 in 2019 and 53 in 2020.
This trend has resulted in tremendous growth and expansion opportunities for the pharmaceutical and biotech industry. Most notable is the rise of new start-up biotech organizations and small pharma companies basking in the promise (and press) of a newly approved drug. Fueled by science, innovation, and technology, I expect this trend to continue, which is great news for pharmaceutical industry professionals as well as those looking to transition into the industry from clinical, hospital, or academic settings. Most importantly, it is good news for the patients and families of those struggling with complicated diseases and limited treatment options. The strongest areas of growth in terms of new drug approvals by therapeutic area are Oncology, Neuroscience, and Rare Diseases.
New titles that may emerge
So, how do these two paradigm shifts – the changing working landscape due to COVID-19 and the consistent, year-over-year rise in new drug approvals – translate into new opportunities for Medical Affairs professionals, and what new titles may emerge as a result?
MANAGED CARE, HEOR, AND MEDICAL OUTCOMES LIAISONS
With a sharp increase in new drugs approvals and new treatment options, there comes a greater need for Field Medical representation to interface with payers and providers. While Managed Care, HEOR, and Medical Outcomes Liaison positions are not necessarily new titles, I anticipate there will be more and more roles like this available to industry professionals in the near future.
Here is where I need to contradict myself in this article – I think it is very likely and entirely feasible for companies to consider adding a strictly virtual MSL to their team, perhaps to cover certain KOLs or parts of the country where access is very difficult, but clinical coverage and engagement is still necessary. This virtual MSL may exist somewhat separately from the traditional field MSL team with a different set of objectives and metrics; it is largely “to be determined.”
CLINICAL TRIAL (CTLS), CLINICAL SCIENCE (CSLS) AND PATIENT CARE LIAISONS (PCLS)
In addition to the sheer number of new drug approvals, it is also important for companies to consider the complexity of the science and research behind a product. Companies must take into consideration who KOLs and HCPs will be responsible for prescribing and administering the treatment. As a result, the emergence of CTLs, CSLs, and PSLs has become prevalent, and we will continue to see growth in these roles for the foreseeable future. These positions differ from the traditional therapeutic MSLs in several ways. The most notable difference is which types of HCPs and practitioners these professionals call on. The focus may be geared toward areas that are not normally covered by therapeutic MSLs, but still include clinical trial data/initiatives, treatment protocols, and patient care regimens. Lastly, the criteria and requirements for these roles will differ as well. Ideal backgrounds may include Nursing or Nurse Practitioner professionals, Physician’s Assistants, or possibly even more specialized disciplines, such as Genetic Counselors, Respiratory Therapists, or Registered Dietitians (to name a few).
In summary, while the importance of virtual and digital tools will continue into the future, Medical Science Liaisons will find greater success and growth through LIVE engagement, while balancing digital tools to help achieve their goals. As the FDA continues to approve new drugs in record numbers, new companies will emerge and current pharma companies will expand, creating tremendous opportunities for Field Medical Affairs professionals to further grow, diversify their skills, and potentially follow different routes and passions. As a result, the MSL role will continue to evolve and expand into new variants, which not only means greater opportunities, but also long-term stability. The value proposition for MSLs has never been better than it is right now in 2021, but it certainly has an even more promising road and future ahead.
Tom Caravela has 30 years of pharmaceutical industry experience and is the Founder and Managing Partner of The Carolan Group and Host of the MSL Talk podcast. Founded in 2002, The Carolan Group is a leading pharmaceutical and biotech search firm specializing in Medical Affairs and Medical Science Liaison recruitment. Tom is responsible for leading a team of expert recruiters and account managers in client expansions for various levels of field-based and in-house Medical Affairs professionals including Medical Science Liaisons, MSL Leaders, Managed Care/HEOR Liaisons, Medical Directors as well as various other medical and clinical affairs roles. With almost 3 decades of pharmaceutical industry experience, Tom is a frequent speaker and Medical Affairs Consultant for clients, advisory boards, and industry meetings. His strategic interests focus on hiring, retention, and career development for the field-based MSL role.