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Ways Medical Affairs Will Drive More Collaborative Relationships with Caregivers


Pharmaceutical Executive

Six ways medical affairs teams can build a stronger blueprint for collaboration in today’s changing environment.

Robert Groebel

As medicine grows more complex and targeted, healthcare professionals (HCPs) and care teams increasingly rely on medical affairs organizations as a trusted source of information to educate them on the latest therapies. In oncology, for instance, complicated treatments target not only a type and sub-type of tumor but also a specific tumor pathway or biomarker, making it important to establish a close partnership between caregivers and drug providers.

Life sciences companies also depend on medical science liaisons (MSLs) for their scientific engagement with leading physicians to generate, interpret, and communicate feedback throughout the product lifecycle.1 “MSLs are highly trained scientifically and medically so they can have deep, multi-faceted peer-to-peer discussions with expert physicians and bring those insights back to the organization,” said Eric Toron, director of global medical affairs operations at Merck. “From R&D to commercial, these insights can shape medical strategy, spark a new clinical trial, or inspire a change in drug delivery.”

The rising importance of MSLs in the industry is reflected in their 12% industrywide growth from 2014 to 2016 and 31% growth in specialty areas such as oncology.2 In many cases, MSLs are a physician’s top resource for information on game-changing interventions and play an integral role in improving patient outcomes. “MSLs are considered highly trusted peers. For many rare diseases, MSLs have even greater, more current information than the physician simply because physicians are not seeing patients with these symptoms often or at all,” said Jennifer Vernazza, director, medical operations and strategy at Sanofi Genzyme. “In these cases, especially, doctors turn to MSLs first for help with a medical inquiry.”

As the industry shifts toward more complex, precision drugs and new generations of HCPs seek deeper collaborations, medical affairs teams must embrace a broader and more data-driven approach. Here are six approaches these teams can take.

1. Engage deeper with scientific experts

Only one-third of top physicians or scientific experts are satisfied with their MSL experience.3 One way that MSLs can improve engagement is by developing a richer understanding of the individual interests of scientific experts. In the past, companies drove engagement through general data distribution, events, advisory boards, and clinical trials. However, 81% of physicians prefer specific information and are more likely to engage when provided relevant communications through preferred channels.4

“MSLs must provide more than just knowledge. The most successful MSLs are excellent storytellers who can present scientific evidence in a way that tells a story about a new product centered on the patient while also nurturing the physician relationship at the same time,” added Vernazza.

MSLs who understand physicians’ scientific interests, patients, and therapeutic focus can tailor their interactions. It’s also important to offer clinical evidence that demonstrates the value of new therapies in comparison with existing treatment options. A successful engagement is often based on an MSL’s familiarity with an HCP’s latest research and the ability to align study opportunities to clinical interests. Companies that deliver more useful information will succeed in building more meaningful relationships. 

To achieve this goal, medical affairs departments must hire and retain MSLs with a more strategic mindset that takes into consideration corporate objectives and patient needs, while providing scientific value to top doctors. Some organizations are implementing new MSL training programs that focus on how to conduct richer peer-to-peer exchanges with HCPs. Improved training strategies and coaching will help MSLs develop a better understanding of their responsibilities and increase their performance all while establishing more credibility in the medical community. 

2. Tailor patient-centric data

The overwhelming growth of clinical data requires life sciences companies to better align patient-reported information gathered from across different stages of the patient’s journey. A greater understanding of the patient experience throughout treatment, combined with clinical data, allows life sciences companies to better tailor their engagement with HCPs and other stakeholders, including payers. Through the delivery of more meaningful information including disease knowledge, emerging data, and outcomes, MSLs provide doctors with a greater understanding of new interventions in order to make well-informed therapeutic decisions.

MSLs can support a life sciences company’s development processes by bringing real-world evidence back from key experts about how different therapies are being accepted by patients. This is particularly important with rare disease therapies that are being fast-tracked through regulatory approval and, therefore, spend less time in controlled clinical settings where data is collected. The ultimate goal is to improve the speed at which emerging data and evidence translates to clinical practice.

“The insights that MSLs bring back in to the company are critical because they are real-world and happening in real time,” said Vernazza. “The goal is to share these insights with other parts of the organization like R&D, market access, and commercial but much of it is done manually. This process is starting to evolve and becoming more automated and more structured with the help of new technologies.”

3. Provide real-time response 

Rather than distributing new drug information to doctors through engagements that may or may not be relevant to their current patients, medical affairs teams must become more responsive to specialty-therapeutics-related inquiries from leading physicians. Considering MSLs as trusted sources of information on complex drugs, doctors contact them directly instead of waiting for the next introduction of information. “MSLs have their top doctors’ personal cell phone numbers and receive calls all times of the day and even into the evenings,” explained Vernazza.

Medical affairs are starting to build new competencies to expand therapeutic area and health-economic knowledge and address inquiries with timely responses that align with specific stakeholders. For example, some companies have created libraries of information that are tagged to help MSLs quickly answer questions. One pharmaceutical company is building reactive decks based on frequently asked questions that MSLs can access to present more focused presentations or provide better answers to questions.5

Another pharmaceutical company recently created an online portal staffed by medical information reps and MSLs to immediately answer physician inquiries. By leveraging inquiries captured across engagement channels, organizations can create more meaningful content for future engagements.

 4. Adopt better communications technology

By 2025, only 13% of oncologists will be baby boomers who prefer face-to-face engagement, while the remaining 87% will consist of younger generations that prefer multichannel and remote engagement.6 Even today, many doctors prefer mobile and interactive platforms.

To better collaborate with newer generations of physicians in their preferred communication modes, MSLs must become more adept with an expanded set of technology solutions. Technology also makes it possible to reach geographically disperse care teams that are difficult to meet face-to-face. Online meetings, webinars, chats, and events enable the distribution of timely information to global locations. These additional options give organizations an edge as they compete for the attention of HCPs.

Technology also helps with proper timing of engagement. For example, companies could leverage de-identified claims data to deploy MSLs in real time. Claims data shows that a diagnostic test has been ordered, signaling a potential rare disease patient in the doctors’ office-an MSL could engage at that time and add even greater value and relevance to the physician relationship.

5. Broaden collaboration among different stakeholders

Precision medicine requires engagement with more than just key physicians, driving MSLs to capture insights from a broader array of stakeholders. For example, MSLs can provide information to payers on the economic impact of diseases and the progress of their therapies to address them. They share information with patients and patient advocacy groups. Many MSLs work with oncology nurses to learn greater details about the patient’s experience with a drug or chemotherapy. Developing relationships with all critical stakeholders expands therapeutic knowledge and insight-oriented discussions throughout the changing scientific landscape.

Some organizations are establishing a new, specialized role in medical affairs called Medical Outcome Liaisons (MOLs). Medically trained like MSLs, MOLs bring scientific expertise to conversations with the payer market-including formulary committees and managed care organizations. “This strategy is especially valuable in therapeutic areas where there is less medical knowledge about certain indications. With many rare diseases having just a few thousand patients, formulary committees need to be educated on the disease as well as the therapeutic intervention and competitive differentiators,” explained Vernazza.

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6. Consider the impact of artificial intelligence

A recent industry survey shows nearly half (44%) of life sciences professionals use or experiment with artificial intelligence (AI) technology and 94% expect to increase use within two years.7 With the exponential growth of scientific data, organizations leverage AI to more rapidly and accurately analyze large volumes of data to understand trends, identify new insights, and make recommendations for next-best actions. AI also automates the optimal use of data and can draw new understanding from previously siloed information to improve decision-making and generate more actionable insights.

For medical affairs, AI presents an avenue to learn about leading physicians and other stakeholders in a more granular way by revealing actions, evidence, and insights in real time. For instance, AI can serve as a virtual mentor in guiding MSL engagements by making suggestions on the next best message or channel and right evidence for MSLs to use for specific individual specialists. Further, AI will provide more structured insights-something often lacking in medical affairs organizations-to improve strategy. With AI, medical affairs have the opportunity to create a critical competitive advantage today while developing a structure for future efforts in an ever-complex healthcare landscape.

“New AI technologies will automatically deliver actionable insights to MSLs,” concluded Vernazza. “It will also be able to quickly combine those insights with other data, external data, bringing it all together so we can take a more holistic look at the needs of the patient and the needs of the doctor and serve both better. It’s the next evolution and it has the potential to be revolutionary.”

A new blueprint for medical affairs

As the life sciences industry recognizes the need for new competencies, technology solutions, and data sources to support better patient outcomes, MSLs will play a more critical role. Likewise, physicians will continue to increase demands on medical affairs teams for more real-time and detailed information in their preferred communication channels. To effectively meet the industry’s growing expectations, medical affairs must evolve current business processes to support future models for success.

“These changes are only going to accelerate,” concluded Toron. “The industry must adopt solutions that directly address the unique needs of medical affairs teams, incorporating more advanced insight-driven data analytics, new digital channels, and automated information sharing.”


To learn more about the challenges and opportunities facing medical affairs leaders, read the “Medical Affairs 2025” report, written in conjunction with leading life sciences companies.


Robert Groebel isVPident, Global Medical Strategy, Veeva Systems. He can be reached at robert.groebel@veeva.com.




1.  ZS Insights, “Medical Affairs’ Data-Driven Rise to Prominence,” by Pratap Khedkar, Sarah Jarvis, and Dean Hakanson, ZS Associates (2019). See report here.

2.  ZS Associates, “Medical Affairs Outlook Report 2017,” (December, 2017) See report here.

3. Pharmaceutical Executive, “The Power of MSL Authenticity," by Paul Meade and Mark Schoeman, (November 30, 2017). See full article here.

4. Affinity Monitor™ Report, by ZS Associates, (2014). See for report here.

5. “MSL Outlook: What is the Future of Field Medical Affairs,” by Veeva Systems (2017). See report here.

6. Census of Actively Licensed Physicians in the United States, 2016.

7. Information Week, “Doctors Prefer Online Drug Info to Rep Visits,” by Ken Terry (December, 2013). See article here.

8. Wilhelm, Susan and Roderhorst-Weber, Kim. (2016) Pearson Education.  Active learning strategies for today's nursing students.

9. Inside HPC. (2018) Survey shows how AI Could Revolutionize Life Sciences.





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