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Eight Tips on Improving KOL Engagement


Gary Kaplan offers surveying tips to help identify both tactical and strategic initiatives required for a true key performance indicator.

As a medical affairs pharmaceutical executive, it is important to understand the current state of measurement of medical affairs activities and their value to key opinion leaders (KOLs). However, the difficulty is that most of the metrics created to assess the medical affairs function only skirt the issue by assessing the quantity of medical science liaison (MSL)/KOL relationships rather than the quality and impact these relationships have on the company.

While articles have appeared imploring companies to train their MSLs to be both knowledgeable about the science within their therapeutic area as well as the dynamics of the entire healthcare environment, and the need to listen to and be cognizant of KOL needs, there have been few attempts to quantify how best to measure success.

Many pharmaceutical enterprises have attempted to elicit follow-up contact with KOLs by using basic satisfaction research to gain insights into their science liaisons’ performance. This mode of research has done a reasonably good job at quantifying simple dealings between companies and consumers, but the approach is weak at determining success or failure with more complex relationships, such as MSL/KOL interactions.    

MSL and KOL surveying techniques should not be equated in the same way that companies typically address customer-satisfaction (i.e., simplistic and fail to identify the needs of the KOLs as well as the specific sources of dissatisfaction that some KOLs have with their MSL). Additionally, bias is introduced to some surveys when respondents are told that the objective of the survey is to rate a specific MSL with whom they have had recent contact leading to poor monitoring of MSL effectiveness.

Proper survey research can be an ideal MSL assessment tool for organizations that strive to be the partner of choice for their KOLs. Using the following surveying tips helps identify both tactical and strategic initiatives required for a true key performance indicator. 

Obtain honest feedback

KOLs often have constant contact with MSLs and other pharmaceutical representatives; however, KOLs may not be willing to be totally honest with them for fear of jeopardizing relationships for future clinical trials or other needs. It is vital to introduce an independent voice into the process, thereby promising anonymity to all respondents while collecting information about the issues essential to the medical affairs program’s success.  

Strategically target KOLs - understand their needs

Most medical affairs teams view the KOLs developed by internal and external consultants as having similar needs. Research has shown that KOLs in virtually every therapeutic area have varying expectations from their MSLs. It is important to know whether your MSLs are spending vast number of hours with KOLs whose needs they cannot meet. It is also important to know what your KOLs are looking for-whether it is scientific and medical consultation, presentation materials, information on clinical trials, speaker programs or advisory boards. To get the correct answers, it pays to ask the right questions. Separate KOLs into need segments and identify the size breakdown of each segment within a company’s therapeutic area regional definition.

Differentiate KOL roles

Many KOL universes include various health care professional (HCP) roles, which involve physicians (MDs or DOs) as well as non-physicians, such as nurse practitioners, physician assistants, Pharm Ds, etc. The same approach may not succeed with each HCP sub-segment. Medical affairs departments should understand these dynamics prior to the allocation of corporate resources.

Address globalization

MSL teams are not limited to sites within the United States but are found in South America, Eastern and Western Europe, Pacific Rim nations and other countries throughout the world, such as India and Israel. Conducting research outside the US and the English-speaking world raises challenges that include comprehension and other language issues as well as understanding the cultural nuances of the responses.  Sampling and recruiting methodologies cannot and should not assume to work equally well in each global market.

Hit the target

Research conducted to assess MSLs uses a methodology similar to general market research, but it must meet very specific needs. The sampling frames tend to be very limited, with a reasonably small number of multiple types of KOLs. Maximizing response rates as well as the experience of identifying potential problem issues with science liaisons are key to a successful assessment of opinion leaders.

The need for a normative database

The key to successful research within the medical affairs arena is to separate the wheat from the chaff, to identify real issues from the occasional MSL-specific problem. These, of course, differ widely by therapeutic area.  It is essential that your research partner has created norms for science liaisons in all specific therapeutic areas and that your science liaisons can be compared not only to a normative database but to your specific competitors.  

Streamline the process

A targeted questionnaire is necessary to identify specific areas for improvement. Such a tool requires a considerable amount of time to develop. The process involves kick-off meetings to discuss business objectives, a qualitative phase to understand the nomenclature used by the target audience, and a sufficient pretest to ensure that the respondents fully understand the document. Since assessments of MSLs rarely have the luxury of time, this research process must be completed before the medical affairs management team needs it. Make certain that your research partner has created a research platform that has already incorporated each of the pre-interviewing stages within the survey document that also includes both the basic attributes common to all MSL assessments as well as module that can be utilized for your therapeutic area.

The next horizon: Key Performance Indicator (KPI) and Identifying Value

A true KPI within medical affairs is difficult because it must pass muster with Compliance.  While research is currently underway to create such a metric, it is possible to identify the value that an MSL brings to a KOL and compare a company’s value-level to MSLs from competitive companies in total and within need segment.  Report cards can and should be created to break down the value proposition by KOL type, by need segment and by geographic region.

Utilizing these 8 tips can enhance the effectiveness of monitoring medical affairs teams and will specifically identify how to improve MSL engagement with KOLs.

Gary Kaplan is VP of Medical Affairs Research at Clinical SCORE. He can be reached at gary.kaplan@clinical-score.com

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