Time for Pharma to Reimagine the Medical Affairs Role

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-07-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 7

Commercial-model shift demanding greater influence of these teams.

Pre-pandemic, employed physicians had less time available for reps, and their influence on purchase decisions had been diluted by committees on which they were just one voice among many. Fewer, larger organizations brought buyers with greater sophistication and more diverse purchase criteria. And tightening finances meant tougher questions about economic and clinical value like budget impact, downstream cost avoidance, off-label use, and method of action.

The pandemic-induced lockdown has made virtual meetings and digital marketing a permanent part of pharma marketing and accelerated all the preexisting trends. The post-pandemic future holds more of the same–on steroids.

This shift to omni-channel communication makes it easier for manufacturers to customize communication for the wider and more sophisticated range of buyer-side representatives involved in purchase decisions. However, it’s important for manufacturers to recognize that the nature of their questions still go well beyond what sales reps are trained for or qualified to answer.

Medical Affairs teams, who have historically operated behind the scenes on a referral basis, are best suited to answer these questions. The growing range and sophistication of buyers, plus the omni-channel hybrid form of communication that is becoming the new normal demands an expanded role for medical affairs in the commercialization process. Buyers want evidence-based answers, and Medical Affairs teams are the personnel best suited to answer them. In addition, the pandemic has wrought other changes that call for the scientific expertise these teams bring.

Another trend accelerated by the pandemic has been to redefine expectations regarding the length of the development and marketing lifecycle. Companies have less time for mistakes and miscues–they can’t afford to ignore any opportunity to tune into the voice of the customer. As Medical Affairs teams increase their customer involvement, they are perfectly positioned to provide a feedback loop to commercial about the effectiveness of marketing efforts, and to development and marketing about clinical concerns that need to be addressed.

Recognizing these multiple pressures for role redefinition, Numerof & Associates recently undertook a survey of medical affairs executives across 29 small, midsize, and large pharmaceutical and medical device organizations. The survey found that 80% of interviewees said their company is already taking steps to reconfigure their Medical Affairs teams. Of those, 28% were classified as “leaders” compared to industry peers, because they had taken steps to transform Medical Affairs’ role even before the pandemic. Fifty-two percent were classified as “followers,” because they’d recognized that changes were needed to the role of Medical Affairs but hadn’t made them prior to COVID-19. And the remaining 20% of respondents were classified as either “fence-sitters” or “resistors,” depending on their current intention to restructure the role.

That said, the time to expand Medical Affairs’ role is now. There is still competitive advantage to be gained by manufacturers for being an “early adopter” in transforming the role. That’s not to say that doing so is as simple as writing a new job description, though. With a change in role come demands for new skills–in digital marketing, in managing client relationships, and in structuring effective communication, to list a few–and in some companies, this work is already underway.

For example, 45% of the respondents in our survey have already started to train Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) on how to better engage clients in virtual meetings. Some have put Medical Affairs staff into positions that allow them to more easily collaborate with other company leaders, and some have already created three-pronged leadership teams featuring Medical, Clinical and R&D staffers, tasked with the responsibility of developing short- and long-term goals for their products. Others have put processes in place so that MSLs can more quickly provide feedback for evidence-generation purposes.

In taking similar steps, manufacturers can not only benefit from enhanced effectiveness of the current product cycle, but can even shorten the time to new product solutions. One surveyed Medical Affairs team’s efforts to highlight a rare product complication ultimately led to a solution for another, understudied disease, for example.

In sum, COVID-19 has charted a path for the future of the healthcare industry. It’s highlighted areas that need improvement, accelerated change, and reminded us of the importance of science. The value that science brings is, indeed, the key to future manufacturer success. But Medical Affairs teams are the ones who hold that key. Now is the time for manufacturers to make sure they use it.

Michael Abrams, MA, is the co-founder and managing partner of Numerof & Associates, a firm that helps businesses across the healthcare industry define and implement strategies for winning in dynamic markets.

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