Pharmaceutical companies walk a dangerous line with key opinion leaders (KOLs). Over the past five or six years, a much wider
range of departmental and product groups have engaged KOLs in an ever-broader range of assignments. Discovery researchers
ask doctors to foresee unmet needs in their specialties a decade down the road, while marketers want to know how a drug should
be positioned over the final years of its lifecycle to remain a clinically effective—and profitable—product. From clinical-trials
consultant and expert speaker to advisory board member, pharma's appetite for medical specialists keeps growing.
However, the number of physicians available to play these roles cannot keep pace with demand. Inevitably, pharma turns to
the same people again and again. At the same time, regulations—especially the guidelines released by OIG—threaten serious
consequences for companies that seem to be offering quid pro quo compensation to their physician customers. To stay out of trouble, companies must learn who their KOLs are, how they fit
the needs of different departments (siloed in larger companies), and how management can complete financial transactions within
KOL Interactions with the Pharmaceutical Industry
Some KOLs Are Everywhere
As the same KOLs pop up in many different roles within the same company, one department or brand may have no idea what the
others are doing. The potential exists for a company to unwittingly pay one opinion leader so much money that the relationship
attracts unfavorable attention. If an opinion leader makes, say, 20 percent of his or her annual salary in consulting fees
from one company, that organization can expect bad press and regulatory scrutiny.
Of course, companies have a legitimate need for advice from doctors who use their products. And sometimes, companies can easily
keep track of their consultants. A leading manufacturer of orthopedic fixation devices, for instance, routinely invites leading
orthopedic surgeons to its internal operating room to use the devices and offer feedback. The company is not too large, and
it can keep track of who visits.
But companies with far-flung affiliates and rigid product and departmental silos are not so lucky. In a single therapeutic
group, all marketers of three different heart medications may approach the same cardiologist for advice. The KOL may also
be asked for his or her input at the discovery or clinical-trial stage of other company products. Before anyone at the company
notices—that is, in the absence of centralized oversight—the doctor is collecting fees from five or six departments. He knows
how much money is coming in, but the company may not know how much is going out.
Affiliates in other countries may also invite the same physician from the United States to speak at conferences. The result:
Fees that are disbursed from cost centers around the globe, without the least accountability to one another, appear to an
outside observer like OIG to come from one centralized, multinational corporation.
Companies need to understand which KOLs are working for them, and in what capacities. A Clarescent survey of global KOLs suggests
that most KOLs participate in three to seven programs at once with a single pharmaceutical company. Often, the KOL knows the
extent of his or her roles with a pharma company better than the company understands its deployment of the KOL.
Who Are the KOLs?
Key opinion leaders can be divided into classes based on how established they are, and how far their influence reaches. Some
KOLs are well known. Others are emerging stars. They can be divided into established KOLs and up-and-comers. These groups
are interesting for different reasons, but must be managed in similar ways.