Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) have evolved to become a critical component of the pharmaceutical industry’s efforts in product awareness, acceptance, and adoption. Although the measures of success continue to evolve, MSLs continue to have a significant impact on internal and external stakeholders through their expert knowledge of the clinical landscape. Why have MSLs evolved into such a key role?
Essentially, the pharmaceutical industry has grown to have a deeper appreciation for transparency and the value it offers to influencers, prescribers, and patients. In this regard, MSLs offer candid, transparent discussions on the science behind the medicines to Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs). This type of engagement is exactly what these influencers need in order to feel comfortable advancing the discussions related to the use of these medicines. KOLs are less interested in promotional messages; they value the data and facts. MSLs deliver the facts and do so in a manner that engages the KOLs to delve deeper into the conversation.
So, what attributes make the most impactful MSL candidates who can deliver this winning combination? We consider the ideal MSL profile to be that of a “hybrid”, in that the MSL needs to deeply understand the science but be able to deliver it in engaging conversations with a variety of key stakeholders. Essentially, these MSLs have a strong left brain and right brain attributes. As the MSL talent pool continues to evolve, and the demand for high-performing MSLs increases in the pharma industry, it becomes an increasingly more competitive environment to find the best candidates.
On the science side, MSLs generally have an advanced degree such as PharmD, MD, or Ph.D. as KOLs similarly have advanced scientific degrees and value conversations with those with relevant backgrounds. Having an advanced degree can serve as a qualifying test to break the ice, allowing the KOL to feel comfortable enough to engage in conversation and delve more deeply into the data. This sense of collegiality created is a first step in the process of establishing a connection and building enduring relationships.
However, one must look beyond this scientific background to find a successful MSL candidate. The ideal candidate is also someone who can carry on “conversational medicine” – someone who has the necessary “soft skills” and emotional intelligence to engage. Soft skills are critical to being a successful MSL, and there are times when a candidate with strong soft skills can be elevated beyond a candidate relying solely on their advanced degree in terms of their overall effectiveness in the medical field.
Having an advanced degree or coming from a clinical background doesn’t always translate into being a good presenter and conversationalist. Rather, successful MSLs need to be able to showcase their personality, their transparency, their likability and have their presentation and listening skills fine-tuned in order to present in a way that sounds genuine, not rehearsed or read from a slide deck.
Everyone can struggle initially with a presentation of data, but those who continuously work to improve these skills and who recognize when they have made a mistake, and are then able to pivot and recover, are the ones who will ultimately make a good MSL. Those who flounder and fail to rehabilitate the discussion, are unlikely to land the ensuing engagements that lead to valuable relationships. This is where innovative training programs and content strategies can dramatically impact effectiveness.
These soft skill qualities are even more critical to the whole communication process now as we require mastery of a virtual environment. In most instances, we still don’t have the ability to meet face-to-face, so MSLs must be able to let their personality and ability to engage shine through the virtual platform interface in order to conduct a successful interaction.
Despite the industry movement toward digital and AI, the MSL engagement with KOLs is still based on an irreplaceable human connection. Making sure the MSL candidate has the necessary skill set to adjust and engage under such conditions is paramount to success. Undeniably, the face-to-face meeting will still deliver the most value and impact as an engaging MSL can maintain the KOL’s undivided attention to the conversation at hand. It is hard to replace this in a virtual setting where the KOL maybe squeezing in a 20-minute conversation during lunch and could be distracted easily with other tasks. Content delivery is still possible, but feedback may be less forthcoming or genuine in this environment.
Ultimately, no matter what the setting, the MSL must deliver value in order to start and maintain a human relationship with the KOL. Such relationships are critical to the ultimate commercialization of the medicine, not just due to the referrals KOLs offer, but for the valuable feedback, MSLs obtain and bring back to impact medical strategy moving forward. Finding that hybrid MSL is key to both.
Jeff Vaughan, PharmD
Jeff Vaughan, PharmD is Director, Field Medical Science, Ashfield Engage. Jeff has worked on both the pharmacy and field science sides of the industry and has served as a Clinical Pharmacy Director as an Air Force Officer, and as regional and national director for several pharmaceutical companies.