The COVID-19 pandemic has represented a 180 degrees’ flip in the way professional relationships are approached between the Pharma industry and HCPs. Consequently, the MSL role has inevitably been impacted by this change of scenario, which has challenged the capacity of self-transformation and adaptation of the ones occupying this position. Especially, the relationships with KOLs turned from face-to-face to virtual during the lockdown period, and the overall impression is that the previous model will not return at all once this crisis is overcome.
This issue was addressed by the MSL Spanish Chapter during the webinar that took place in May 2021 entitled “Building New Virtual Relationships During the Pandemic: Tips and Tricks”, in which 395 people from 38 different countries had registered and answered a pre-registration survey. 51% of the respondents were MSLs, Sr. MSLs, or Medical Advisors (or equivalent title) and 12% were managers/directors of MSLs. Furthermore, 127 people assisted to the webinar and answered live polling questions regarding the selected topic.
Hence, the aim of the present article is to recapitulate the feedback extracted from the participants in this pre-registration and live polling questions and provide a briefing of the main insights collected by the MSLs when addressing virtual relationships with KOLs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Start virtual relationships with KOLs
The first question was: “What has been the biggest challenge you have faced when establishing NEW KOL relationships during the COVID-19 Pandemic?”, and the most selected options by the MSLs were getting a response from an introductory email request to meet and convincing KOLs to meet/engage virtually (40% and 26% respectively, Graphic 1).
Graphic 1. Pre-registration survey question 1.
Thus, 66% of the respondents expressed that their main barrier was related to the initiation of a professional relationship, that used to be face-to-face and nowadays is primarily virtual.
Accordingly, it can be noted in Graphic 2 that the top 1 result of an open question of the pre-registration survey that stated: “What type of training/assistance would be most beneficial to make you more effective in virtual KOL engagements?” was receiving training about effective engagement methods (37%). Among the ones who answered in this direction, 22% were interested specifically in developing the email as a successful engagement method. In the second position, the participants expressed the need to receive training regarding the existing digital communication tools (18%).
Graphic 2. Pre-registration survey question 2.
Therefore, the answer to the first two questions indicates that the virtual engagement with the KOLs is the principal challenge for the MSLs in the actual environment, with a special concern about virtually establishing the very first contact with them, as well as achieving proper management of the available digital applications.
Conducting virtual interactions with KOLs
However, although the first contact with new KOLs is critical, MSLs also need to set up a follow-up engagement to build long-term relationships with them. In fact, MSLs should equally maintain their interactions in the digital environment to meet monthly performance and KPIs. This matter was also reflected in an open question of the pre-registration survey, which stated: “What advice or recommendation would you give to another MSL for improving their virtual relationships with KOLs?”. Graphic 3 reveals that the three principal recommendations were:
- Identify KOLs interests, personalize and add value to the interaction (23%).
- Be prepared, passionate, proactive, and open to listen and learn (15%).
- Be flexible, patient, and empathetic (13%).
Graphic 3. Pre-registration survey question 3.
In line with this result and as shown in Graphic 4, when asked “Which of the following has worked BEST for you when establishing virtual relationships?” during the webinar, the respondents chose to be flexible and adaptable (58%), which was the top 3 advice in the previous question, as the most important consideration to take into account in virtual interactions, followed by providing valuable scientific content (26%).
Graphic 4. Webinar live polling question 1.
According to the previous questions, we may anticipate that the main skills that MSLs should develop to achieve mutually beneficial virtual relationships do not differ at all from the ones required in face-to-face interactions. Consequently, virtual engagement skills should be enhanced and taken into consideration by the MSLs during the planning, engagement, and review of their KOL interactions.
The company environment and future perspectives
In the current situation, it emerges as essential that MSLs and Medical Department members embrace virtual transformation aligned with other departments, in order to accelerate the digital transition of Pharma companies.
Regarding this issue, during the webinar, the assistants were asked: “How satisfied are you with your company’s response to the changing environment during the COVID-19 Pandemic?”. The result was that 89% of the participants were highly satisfied, satisfied, or moderately satisfied (34%, 29%, and 26% respectively), indicating that the MSLs feel supported by their companies in this transition to virtuality (Graphic 5).
Graphic 5. Webinar live polling question 2.
The last inquiry that was addressed by live polling in the webinar was related to the future perspectives: “Should the future of MSL/KOL engagements primarily be face-to-face (F2F), virtual, or a combination of both?”. Interestingly, 59% of the respondents selected the mixed model, which implies 50% of both virtual and face-to-face interactions (Graphic 6). Thus, it seems clear that if the MSLs could choose they would prioritize this approach for future interactions, according to the generalized belief that the virtuality will remain.
Graphic 6. Webinar live polling question 3.
From all this data, it can be concluded that virtuality has undoubtedly changed the way the MSLs engage with KOLs and has empowered digital tools that did not have such importance before (for example, the videocall assistants or the emails). Hence, the outcomes extracted from this webinar point out the need to achieve an effective virtual engagement with KOLs as the biggest challenge that MSLs have faced during the pandemic. Importantly, when accomplished this could lead to an advantageous synergy between in-person and digital relationships with KOLs, as the virtual environment provides unique advantages in terms of flexibility and feasibility.
Nevertheless, it can also be concluded that the focus during the interaction seems to stay the same as in the pre-pandemic era, so the digital environment does not represent a change in what the KOLs require to feel connected and attracted by the MSLs, who despite communicating through a webcam need to show interest, provide value, be flexible or be passionate and proactive.
Finally, it is important to highlight that the vast majority of MSLs are satisfied with their companies’ efforts in this transition to virtuality and that all the lessons learned during the COVID-19 crisis will be useful in the future, as most of the companies seem to be moving towards a mixed virtual/face-to-face model in the following years. However, further investigation will be needed to follow up the evolution of the digital scenario in this rapidly changing world, focusing on the strategic role that the MSLs have in the Pharma industry.
Victor Sastre, MS, MSL-BC
Victor has more than 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical & biotech industry, Medical Affairs, and R&D. Professor in several Masters and Pharma MBA Coordinator. Passionate and author of various publications related to the MSL position. He is currently a Senior MSL in Amgen, with responsibility in Bone Metabolism, Neuroscience, Inflammation, and Biosimilars. Victor has previous experience at Parke-Davis and Pfizer. In 2018, he received the MSL Award of the year (Outside USA) from the MSL Society.
Albert Chavero, PhD
Albert Chavero holds a Ph.D. in Biomedicine and a degree in Biochemistry. He has 5 years of experience in basic research in the field of cancer cell biology and is currently studying on a graduate program in the Scientific Departments of the Pharmaceutical Industry at ESAME. He is looking forward to an MSL position and as part of his master’s practice, is working at Amgen in the Bone/Inflammation Medical Affairs Department.
Martina Riosalido, MS
Martina has more than 13 years of experience in the Pharmaceutical & Biotech industry, in Training, Marketing, and Medical Affairs departments, overseeing both national and international projects for subsidiaries and headquarters within a multicultural work environment. She is currently an MSL in Norgine, mainly focusing on Nuclear medicine and Gastroenterology. In 2019, She received the award for MSL of the year Outside USA from the MSL Society.
Javier Mateo is an MSL Lead with more than 3 years’ experience Career and life achievements to date are centered on making a difference, creative problem solving, and working in high-energy teams with honesty and integrity. Always close to innovations and new discoveries, very much patient-focused with medical and business vision and in a continuous learning environment. Accountable for the overall performance of the MSL team and the ongoing capability development by effectively leading, coaching, and managing.
Cristina García García, MSc
Cristina has more than 10 years of experience in the Pharmaceutical & Biotech Industry. She is currently an MSL Manager at Persan Farma, specialized in Clinical Nutrition, especially focused on therapeutic areas as Endocrinology, Oncology, Surgery, and Gerontology. She is developing her doctoral thesis at the Department of Biomedicine, Translational Research, and New Technologies at Malaga University.
In 2019, she received the MSL Manager Award of the Year (Outside USA) from the MSL Society. She is also a member of the Advisory Committee in the Spanish Chapter of the Medical Science Liaison Society.
Beatriz Cuéllar, MSc
Beatriz Cuéllar, MSc is Field Medical Excellence Manager at Takeda. She has a Pharmacy degree and a master’s degree in Pharmaceutical and Clinical Research. For the last 10 years, Beatriz has held different roles at key pharmaceutical companies, always within medical affairs. She started in research and then moved to MSL positions, which allowed her to fully understand its different particularities and become really passionate about the role. At present Beatriz is responsible for the planning, execution, and alignment of the in-field strategy, processes, and systems for MSL teams. She loves supporting and inspiring MSLs to enhance their capabilities and skills so that they become high-performing and best-in-class teams.