Bridging the Generational Chasm in Oncology

January 18, 2021
Robert Groebel

How engaging with digital influencers holds the key for medical affairs.

Oncology is in the middle of a generational chasm. The number of oncologists actively practicing in the U.S. has remained fairly steady at nearly 13,000, with close to 20% nearing retirement age at 64 and older. As these baby boomers retire, those spots will be filled by millennials, part of a generation of physicians that communicate, engage, and look for information in an entirely different way.

It is critical that the biopharmaceutical industry develop strategic approaches for engagement that reflect these emerging communication preferences. Organizations that focus on developing novel approaches for cancer care must recognize that their ability to inform successful patient outcomes will require the treating landscape to consume a vast amount of growing scientific evidence.

Challenges of a widening gap

A study commissioned by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) predicts that there will be a shortage of about 2,250 oncologists in the U.S. by 2025. We simply will not have enough oncologists to meet the rise in demand, with the number of patients receiving care expected to increase 53% by 2040. The study found that an aging and growing population and increasing numbers of cancer survivors would lead to a 40% growth in demand for oncologist services.

Compounding these challenges, the science of drug development in oncology is becoming more complex every single day, reflected by the volume of compounds that are continuously emerging. There are now close to 1,400 targeted compounds and vaccines currently in development, with 265 new U.S. trials annually and new clinical data published on the topic of cancer every day.

In this increasingly intricate therapeutic area, oncologists of all generations must have access to trusted information about innovative treatment options, delivered in the ways they prefer. Life sciences’ Medical Affairs teams are well-positioned to bridge the gap, as the traditional role of the Medical Science Liaison (MSL) evolves to align with the demands of a virtual world. MSLs must understand how key opinion leaders, or medical experts, of different generations consume information and want to engage.

This is especially pressing given the rise of the digital influencer (DI) or connected opinion leader (COL) – a new class of medical voices that showcases the marriage between scientific communication and the digital world.

Connecting with digital influencers, as well as traditional experts, is key to bridging the generational gap between baby boomer and millennial oncologists. As the oncology workforce becomes younger in the coming years, it is up to Medical Affairs to adapt by leveraging digital engagement to complement the traditional MSL to expert relationship and ensure the digital influencers amplify critical scientific breakthroughs throughout social media.

The role of digital influencers in a growing digital ecosystem

More and more, oncology HCPs of all generations are becoming digitally competent – especially leveraging social media, YouTube videos, and podcasting – to communicate their expertise, present a scientific point-of-view, and build an online following.

Their followers include both peers and patients as well as pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, all of whom must assess the digital influencer’s message to determine impact and develop trust. These digital experts curate an influential presence by playing to the strengths of each medium to get their message across.

A hallmark example of a traditional oncology expert who has become digitally savvy is Dr. Eric Winer, a medical oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Winer has developed a large online following by consistently posting educational YouTube videos. Medical oncologist and thought leader Dr. Jack West also attracts a significant audience online while also serving as an advisor or consultant to nine pharmaceutical companies, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Celgene, and Merck. These two roles that many DIs play make it critical for MSLs to identify and engage with DIs as part of a long-term strategy.

Twitter is the most popular social media channel. Mayo Clinic oncologist Dr. Vincent Rajkumar has 32,500 Twitter followers. Like Winer and West, Rajkumar is a traditional expert who has mastered the art of social media to amplify his medical prowess, whether by sharing thoughts on recent publications or answering frequently asked questions.

Expect further examples of experts adapting to digital, developing a wide-reaching online following, and becoming even more influential across the life sciences industry. Tomorrow’s oncologists will be digitally savvy HCPs, many of whom do not boast a “traditional” expert profile with dozens of published papers or large conference presence. They are more naturally comfortable in digital spaces and adept at mastering digital channels – and they are just as important to life sciences companies who need to establish lasting relationships with emerging leaders.

Medical Affairs need new approaches to engage with both the traditional baby boomer experts who still hold patient respect and the new wave of go-to experts gaining influence via digital platforms.

Identifying and prioritizing digital influencers in oncology

When it comes to MSLs targeting and engaging with oncology DIs, the strategy looks different compared to reaching out to the traditional expert. For starters, it is easier to know find experts, those opinion leaders who can be qualified by participation in peer-reviewed publications and number of clinical trials.

Connecting with DIs requires a different approach, starting by engaging with target social networks. Medical Affairs departments can develop strategies for social media listening and follow experts who voice opinions and share information about relevant clinical trials, research, and oncology therapeutic areas. By paying attention to the discussions happening online right now, companies can identify trends and turn that data into insights.

While staying on top of the information and opinions being circulated digitally is key, Medical Affairs must then use those insights to actively participate in the conversation. In the virtual world where information spreads lightning-fast, it is crucial to always be aware of scientific exchange that is occurring on social media. Listening to the virtual dialogue, as the first step, and engaging with HCPs who post about relevant topics is an easy way for companies to participate in the social exchange.

The virtual world is continuing to grow its reach and be the setting for medical conversation and direct personal scientific exchange – with no hint at slowing down. Not participating in the digital conversation is no longer an option when it comes to the success of breakthrough medicines. Engaging with the right DIs requires a different skillset and different data compared to connecting with traditional experts. It also requires a richer understanding of what makes both the DIs and other experts tick.

Building share of voice through relationships with digital influencers

As Medical Affairs continues to become more prominent, the traditional conversations between MSLs and experts must be upgraded or, at the very least, expanded upon with different yet complementary strategies. It is critical to develop a strategy for how to apply social media insights and engage with DIs, many of whom are part of the millennial generation, to collect new insights.

DIs are positioned to reach thousands of colleagues and patients with a single tweet to their virtual community of followers. They influence the industry by disseminating research and information quickly, through mediums that are second nature to the generation of “digital native” oncologists. These efforts provide greater access to groundbreaking research and increase awareness of emerging compounds and diagnostic breakthroughs to expand an organization’s “scientific share of voice” beyond traditional channels. For instance, MSLs can reach members of the treating community who may not regularly attend conferences or have the time to explore the mountains of peer-reviewed literature.

The immense scope and wide reach of a scientific expert’s Twitter profile is an important insight for MSLs. When Medical Affairs teams engage with DIs, they extend their own reach and expand their coverage when it comes to knowledge transfer and dialogues about emerging science. Doing so also emphasizes the value of Medical Affairs as a whole.

Luckily, the overwhelming majority of Medical Affairs professionals understand the importance of digital influencers. In a recent survey conducted by Monocl and the Medical Science Liaison Society, only 8% of the global respondents said that DIs are “not very” or “not at all” important to them, with the rest split evenly between those who consider them “very” or “somewhat” important. Today, the question is how to engage with both experts and digital influencers effectively and develop long-term strategies and processes around social media and digital engagement.

Creating a long-term strategy for social media engagement

Generating insights for the organization – this is the job of any Medical Affairs department, and social media listening offers a new way to inform company-wide objectives. Companies can identify experts with unique perspectives on relevant oncology topics, which can help validate key decisions. Generating valuable insights that are actionable on the company level requires a clear, long-term strategy.

A social media strategy must go beyond simply knowing who the primary DIs are for your specific therapeutic area. Finding the right audience, the right name, is just one small piece. Medical Affairs must also understand the context of that expert – including who influences them and what relationships are entrenched – and why they would want to engage and develop a relationship. A company’s digital engagement goals must also align with its medical strategy and consider how virtual channels can add value to the HCP community and ultimately improve patient outcomes.

Capturing social media information requires a data-driven process and a platform that makes it easy to find the right individuals. MSLs can focus on those digital experts who have the most significant impact or voice, with information like their number of followers and what kind of message they are sharing.

When Medical Affairs teams can easily identify and target the right individuals, they can use that information to make strategic decisions and start building out comprehensive engagement strategies with each digital influencer. Engagement may focus on addressing misinformation or ensuring that DIs have access to cutting-edge information and understand the impact of emerging innovation.

Engaging with the new generation of oncologists

The oncology workforce is due to become increasingly occupied by millennial physicians who prefer virtual collaboration and scientific discourse via social channels like YouTube and Twitter.

Traditional experts build their reputation and create their local, regional, or national networks via peer-reviewed publications and scientific leadership as well as clinical trial activity. These individuals will in many ways become eclipsed by DIs — a different class of experts who can create a sphere of influence by leveraging well-established digital channels. These digital influencers quickly deliver scientific updates, sometimes derived from their own work but most often from a multitude of traditional experts, that are consumed by thousands of loyal followers.

Identifying and connecting with digital influencers is now mission-critical for Medical Affairs, particularly as millennials are becoming a significant portion of U.S. oncologists. Medical Affairs departments must understand where they should communicate and the right audience they should communicate with to help bridge the generational gap.

In this growing and complex market, data-driven insights are key for Medical Affairs to deploy scientifically strategic programs that combine both traditional expert and digital influencer engagement. In a rapidly evolving field such as oncology, driving innovation and improving patient outcomes relies on prioritizing the revolutionary strategies to address the digital influencer dynamic.

Robert Groebel, vice president of Global Medical Strategy, Monocl