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Being KOL-Centric: More Meaningful Expert Engagement

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive: March 2023
Volume 43
Issue 3

Global medical affairs teams seek better support to manage relationships with key opinion leaders—and find that balance between patient needs, scientific objectives, and the interest areas of KOLs.

The healthcare industry has made an emphatic and admirable shift toward putting the patient first in recent decades. While it might be relatively straightforward for healthcare providers (HCPs) to be patient-centric, it is not always so clear for life sciences companies.

What can the industry do to ensure that our customer engagement, our clinical focus, and our product education is focused where it needs to be?

Pharmaceutical companies can be more patient-focused by effectively engaging with HCPs and physician leaders on the frontline of medical care. Tapping into physicians’ knowledge and experience throughout product development—from R&D to commercialization—can help to focus the industry’s efforts on producing the best results for patients. Working closely and compliantly with a range of key opinion leaders (KOLs) has often made the difference when it comes to ensuring that a new product most effective and able to efficiently reach those who will benefit from it once it comes to market.

Roadblocks to quality KOL engagement

Most KOLs are being slammed on all sides and channels by information and engagement from the pharmaceutical industry. They are drowning under the deluge yet need it to stay on top of the latest medical science innovation. For instance, there has been a steady increase in the publication of scientific information as the number of scientific papers has grown by 9% each year for the past several decades.1 Meanwhile, there are fewer physicians to consume such mountains of new information. The Association of American Medical Colleges projects a shortage of as many as 124,000 physicians by 2034.2 Companies need to work harder than ever to break through the increasing level of noise and work effectively with KOLs.

On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies’ medical affairs teams are also slammed. Medical science liaisons (MSLs) have an increasingly broader set of responsibilities to capture more information and disseminate it to the right experts, which now include digital opinion leaders (DOLs).

While commercial sales and marketing teams have the advantage of relevant technology, MSLs are frequently left without the right type of tech support. To compensate, medical affairs teams often purchase physician-centered data from various third-party vendors, such as Definitive Healthcare or Veeva Link. This data may be records of physician attendance at conferences or published research and more. While this data has value, it is not easily actionable. MSLs must sift through each data point and synthesize it all to draw conclusions before taking action, and this takes time. With artificial intelligence (AI) technology, however, all these data sources are analyzed in an instant and run through advanced machine learning models to provide MSLs with reliable insights and suggestions on the next best action to take with KOLs—such as the next best message, the next best time to engage, and through the next best channel.

Scientifically engaging with KOLs while remaining aligned with the rest of the organization’s outreach to the same physician requires more sophisticated tools and technology. It’s time to be as KOL-centric as we are patient-centric.

What does it mean to be KOL-centric?

The starting point is to understand the needs and interests of KOLs. Look at the opportunities, initiatives, and programs in a pharma company’s R&D pipeline and clinical development programs and start to bring their needs and interests together. It’s about finding that sweet spot between unmet patient needs, corporate scientific objectives, and the interest area of the KOL.

Now more than ever, to be successful and ensure that their products best serve patients in need, companies must design their entire operation to facilitate easy and effective collaboration with KOLs.

Empathy is key.

KOL-centricity must be fundamentally rooted in empathy. According to psychologist and author, Daniel Goleman, there are three types of empathy, each of which is crucial to establishing a long-lasting partnership with another. Those three types include:

  1. Cognitive empathy. The ability to understand another’s perspective.
  2. Emotional empathy. The ability to physically feel what another person feels.
  3. Empathetic concern. The ability to sense what another person needs.

Combined, it comes down to considering the relationship from the other person’s point of view—which, in this case, is the KOL’s. MSLs should put themselves in the KOL’s shoes and think carefully about why they would be interested in working with them. What’s in it for the KOL? What specifically do they need from the relationship?

“First and foremost, MSLs should work to understand what we are looking for specifically, what is important to me in caring for my patients with a specific disease or complication,” says Vidit Bhargava, MD, a pediatric critical care specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Alabama and an assistant professor in the department of pediatric critical care at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in an interview. “Learn more about the medical problems that I am trying to solve in my practice. Start there, and I will listen.”

Life sciences companies should also design the full scope of their medical affairs operations, including new clinical evidence dissemination, publications, conference presentations, advice-seeking plans, and one-on-one engagements to make it easy and fruitful for KOLs to engage with them. It should always be a seamless experience. Having the same conversation with multiple representatives of the same company, for example, is frustrating. Streamlining engagement will help KOLs feel like their time is respected and valued—and that sentiment goes a long way to cementing a relationship.

KOLs must also gain value from their interactions with the company. It cannot be a one-sided relationship. As influential and seasoned professionals, these healthcare leaders have worked hard to get to the pinnacle of their field and are eager to use their hard-earned knowledge and experience to drive progress and improve patient lives. Organizations that engage with KOLs most successfully employ high levels of emotional intelligence, constantly thinking about how their own goals and objectives align closely with the goals and objectives of KOLs. Considering why a KOL might need a company as much as the company needs the KOL is key to ensuring an ongoing and mutually beneficial relationship.

Meeting KOLs where they are

One way to facilitate meaningful relationships is to create opportunities for KOLs to proactively engage with a company and ask about new products that might be useful for their patients. Creating this environment will set the stage for a productive relationship.

“I meet with companies to find out what the new developments are and to learn how I can do things better,” says Bhargava. “For example, when I attend annual scientific meetings—most recently, at the Society of Critical Care Medicine Annual Meeting—I am often able to meet with a range of industry professionals. I like this because then I can reach out to many of them at the same time.”

Through such interactions, Bhargava often has his interest piqued, enabling him to follow up with those whom he would like to engage with further. As he explains, his interest is driven by his academic and research interests as well as professional goals.

“We are looking for new innovations that will enable us to measure the function of the heart in real-time, second by second,” says Bhargava. “This is critical for being able to catch an aberration in the heart early and prevent larger issues for the patient. I’ve spoken to MSLs to understand this technology better and how it has been validated specifically for use with children.”

For Bhargava, engaging in conversations with MSLs can be helpful because they are often at the forefront of knowledge about new products. Scientifically-valuable engagement can often be the starting point for understanding how KOLs might deploy new technology or prescribe new drugs to benefit patients.

“Not every conversation with pharmaceutical or medical device companies must be about a sale. Provide information and demonstrate how a new technology or medicine can improve a patient’s life,” says Bhargava. “Don’t sell me. It’s too impersonal and deters me from learning.”

Clearly, having informed and targeted engagements with KOLs is more impactful than taking a one-size-fits-all approach. The impact of this kind of engagement can extend well beyond discussions that KOLs have with MSLs or sales reps. Useful engagement with KOLs can extend across an entire organization, even helping to inform and serve the research and development process as well as the commercialization of new products. The more company representatives can speak directly to the interests and needs of a KOL, the more likely their product truly serves patients.

Sharing is caring

Companies can most effectively optimize all interactions with KOLs by sharing information across teams.

All too often, sales teams’ interactions with KOLs will go unnoticed by medical affairs and vice versa due to strong compliance firewalls build between both teams. This can lead to awkward and often inefficient exchanges that waste the KOL’s time and sour the relationship. Everyone needs a complete picture of who is interacting with a KOL and have compliant visibility into relevant pieces of the information exchanged. Integrated customer relationship management (CRM) systems specifically designed for the unique needs of both commercial and medical teams open windows of visibility. When those systems are boosted by AI technology, it enables collaboration between sales reps, brand teams, and MSLs for personalized, orchestrated engagement with KOLs.

As an example, in preparation for a new product launch, MSLs could capture and share valuable insights from KOLs about potential headwinds the product might face in a certain subgroup of hospitals—such as the ease of conducting any required companion diagnostic tests for patients. Armed with such nuanced product information ahead of launch empowers brand managers to develop collateral that educates patients about how and where to get the diagnostic tests. Similarly, this insight helps inform the sales process. AI technology can ingest this information, analyze it against all of the target physician personas, and automatically present commercial teams with the right content to present to each physician across an omnichannel launch campaign to strike the right chord.

The same benefit happens in reverse. As sales reps introduce the new product to physicians, they can capture physicians’ technical questions and route these to MSLs. This information, filtered through AI analytics models, automatically informs MSLs what information should be proactively explained or emphasized with each KOL they engage with in their next conversation, or it can alert the MSL to reach out to a KOL immediately if there is an urgent need to solve a patient problem.

Most organizations have CRM systems and subscribe to multiple data sources. What they lack is the intelligence technology to make the information meaningful and actionable for MSLs.

Life sciences companies often don’t share such potentially valuable information, in part, because the industry discourages information-sharing out of fear of compliance-related issues. Yet, valuable data that could easily (and compliantly) be collected from all the various interactions a company has with KOLs fall by the wayside out of an abundance of caution. Instead, leverage technology to employ compliant solutions that will create “interest maps,” or profiles that can help inform representatives from across a company about what patients a KOL sees, what conferences they attend, what research they publish, and more. It helps MSLs understand a KOL’s engagement preferences, such as timing, channel, content, and format.

“Figure out the right time to provide me information so I can fully take it in without taking time away from patients,” says Bhargava. “This allows me to focus and better absorb information.”

A KOL’s professional journey—what patients they see, what drugs or products they are interested in, and what research they engage in—should be fully understood and shared across the entire company, even outside the commercial and medical affairs groups. Yet, this information is locked in silos. One typical example of this kind of blind spot pertains to clinical trial investigators who are often identified using a centralized database. Many times, information that is available about emerging investigators is not shared widely across a company. That means that all company representatives who might interact with prospective KOLs are doing so without a complete picture of their knowledge and experience.

It also helps the organization in far-reaching ways. For example, an MSL who uncovers a KOL’s research interests can bring that information back to R&D as a potential candidate for a clinical trial investigator role, or an MSL gains important insight into an unmet need through a discussion with a KOL. When channeled compliantly along to commercial and R&D colleagues, these insights can be used to appropriately position a product, educate patients, as well as inform the company’s R&D pipeline.

Personalized partnerships benefit all

According to a survey conducted by the Society for Participatory Medicine in 2017, more than 80% of surveyed physicians reported that they believe personalized interactions with pharma companies can be beneficial for patient care.3 Life sciences organizations must take this data to heart and do their best to value these critical relationships and what they can do to serve patients’ needs. The role that KOLs play in helping to ensure that the work that pharma companies do focuses on improving lives is undeniable. That is why, now more than ever, the pharma industry must ensure these important relationships are given the respect they deserve. KOLs should be provided with what they need when they need it. To do this properly, the industry must shift away from the one-size-fits-all approach to more personalized engagement—to become as KOL-centric as patient-centric.

Deepak Patil, senior director of medical strategy, Aktana


  1. Landhuis, E. Scientific Literature, Information Overload,” Nature. 2016, 5365, 457-458. https://www.nature.com/articles/nj7612-457a#citeas
  2. Renfrow, R. AAMC Estimates 124k More Physicians Will Be Needed by 2034, with the Largest Gap Among Specialists. Fierce Healthcare,July 15, 2021, https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/practices/physician-shortage-continues-to-widen-now-estimated-at-124-000-by-2034
  3. Sands, D. Evidence! New S4PM Survey Shows People Want to Collaborate with Their Doctors and Co-Produce Their Clinical Data. Society for Participatory Medicine, February 2, 2016, https://participatorymedicine.org/epatients/2016/02/s4pm-survey-shows-people-want-to-collaborate-w-docs-and-co-produce-clinical-data.html
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