The role of the medical science liaison (MSL) requires a unique skill set to be successful. The ability to accurately discuss scientific data and engage with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), Thought Leaders (TLs), and clinically practicing providers is one of these skills. The ability to engage in compliant, open-ended, unbranded discussions regarding the science of disease management, including safe and efficacious ways to support our patients diagnosed with various illnesses, is the foundation of these meetings.
During onboarding for my first MSL role, a significant focus of education for our team was focused on how to effectively engage with all levels of providers to obtain insights as one of our key performance indicators (KPIs). Early on I began to understand, and value, how my training as a qualitative researcher would be of great benefit as an MSL. I also learned to appreciate how my experience collecting real world data as patient reported outcomes during my time as a project manager for a continuous quality improvement project would also be of great benefit in this new role (Swift et al, 2018).
Qualitative research training prepares one to explore and provide deep insights into real-world problems, as well as gather information on participants’ experiences, perceptions, and behaviors (Tenny, S. et al 2017). In my opinion, experience as a qualitative researcher creates a unique ability to approach KOL engagement and discussions on the management of disease states with a different lens. Qualitative research, drawing on the perspectives of both healthcare professionals and patients, has played an increasingly important part in progressing the understanding of why clinical trials succeed (or fail) (Norman, J.E et al 2021). The recent focus on the value of real-world data, often presented as patient-reported outcomes, is a great example of the increasing value of qualitative data and how it can inform the decisions made by KOLs to manage their patient (Liu & Panagiotakos,2022).
Engaging with a licensed prescriber, either in-person or virtually, requires intentional preparation to guide the interaction allowing for the collection of actionable insights. Due to time constraints faced by providers in ambulatory care settings, the importance of a pre-call plan to increase the value of the meeting is greatly appreciated. High-quality interview skills help the MSL by allowing one to stay focused and maintain control of the interaction while allowing for a natural flow, exchange of information, and collection of insights. Qualitative research interview skills are a viable and highly utilized data-collection tool (Jamshed, 2014). These skills are extremely helpful when meeting with KOLs, TLs, and licensed providers who continue to provide direct patient care.
Given that timely engagement of KOLs and obtaining actionable insights, which can be viewed as real-world data, are key performance indicators for professional and financial success in the MSL role, understanding how to be an effective interviewer is of great importance. Cormac et al (2019) offer the following tips for a successful interview: (a) prepare yourself as an interviewer by constructing an interview guide, or pre-call planning worksheet to maintain time management; (b) build rapport with the KOL; (c) understand you are a co-creator of the data or insight; (d) talk less and listen more; (e) be flexible and adjust as needed; and (f) document the interview in a timely manner to concisely capture actionable insights. One last tip is to leave preconceived notions of possible insights before a meeting at the door and let the discussion flow. KOLs have valuable experiences. Assuming before the meeting begins that no new information because of previously obtained insights can cause the MSL to disengage and not be open to hearing unique perspectives from each KOL appointment. It is of primary importance for the MSL to modify questions on the pre-call planning sheet and change the direction of the discussion and facilitate obtaining a new insight with a different perspective.
Respectful scientific engagement with KOLs can create a strong foundation for a peer-to-peer relationship and makes it possible to obtain actionable insights. Increased understanding of how science drives KOL patient care decisions, including selection of a medication or medical device to manage a disease state, can be achieved by asking the right questions. Actionable insights may also lead to the development of a new pipeline for the selected treatment.
Organizing the valuable insights obtained into categories, or themes, is important to manage the KPIs. If the insights obtained begin to sound the same, it is the MSLs job to use this real-world data to inform changes to the pre-call planning worksheet to better guide for future engagements. Data saturation is a qualitative research term used when it is determined no new information can be obtained from interviews and/or observations (Morse, 1995). Given each KOL has unique experiences based on research and/or clinical experience, a good MSL can skillfully guide the engagement to facilitate obtaining an insight with a new, unique perspective.
In conclusion, utilizing qualitative research skills can help the MSL obtain unique, actionable insights to guide the management of disease states, create new pipelines, and ultimately improve patient care.
McGrath, C., Palmgren, P. J., & Liljedahl, M. (2019). Twelve tips for conducting qualitative research interviews. Medical teacher, 41(9), 1002-1006.Jamshed S. 2014. Qualitative research method- interviewing and observation. J Basic Clin Pharm. 5:87– 88.
Liu, F., & Panagiotakos, D. (2022). Real-world data: a brief review of the methods, applications, challenges and opportunities. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 22(1), 287.
Morse, J. M. (1995). The significance of saturation. Qualitative Health Research, 5(2), 147–149. doi:10.1177/104973239500500201
Norman, J. E., Lawton, J., Stock, S. J., Siassakos, D., Norrie, J., Hallowell, N., … & Whyte, S. (2021). Qualitative research. In Feasibility and design of a trial regarding the optimal mode of delivery for preterm birth: the CASSAVA multiple methods study. NIHR Journals Library.
Swift, B., Jain, L., White, C., Chandrasekaran, V., Bhandari, A., Hughes, D. A., & Jadhav, P. R. (2018). Innovation at the intersection of clinical trials and real‐world data science to advance patient care. Clinical and translational science, 11(5), 450-460
Tenny, S., Brannan, G. D., Brannan, J. M., & Sharts-Hopko, N. C. (2017). Qualitative study.
Susan Holmes-Walker, PhD, RN
Susan Holmes-Walker, PhD RN, is a Medical Science Liaison with experience in the Opioid Use Disorder, Neurology, Pain, and Respiratory disease states. She is a doctorate-prepared registered nurse with a diverse range of healthcare experience committed to improving patient outcomes in our global society. Dr Holmes-Walker has provided clinical care for complex, rare diseases, medical/surgical, oncology, orthopedic, gastroenterology, women’s health, and acute and chronic pain patients seeking care for treatment of various disease states. She is also a healthcare continuing education (CE) provider with expertise in the topics of pain management, patient safety and the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion with top tier evaluation ratings. In addition, she is an experienced higher education administrator, faculty member and clinical instructor with demonstrated success working within life science multidisciplinary healthcare teams.