Building MSL Teams for Success in a Virtual World

Building MSL Teams for Success in a Virtual World

Months into our new virtual reality - with no clear end in sight – we have a better idea of what it means to conduct pretty much all our professional interactions virtually. Many professionals had to adapt and adjust but some, like life science commercial and medical field teams, have experienced a complete shift in how they work. A shift that many in the industry believe, will never entirely revert to the “old normal”, even when it is safe again to meet people outside your bubble without masks and social distancing. The “new normal” for field teams will continue to mean virtual interactions with external experts.

There are advantages to virtual interaction: less time spent on the road or more frequent but potentially shorter interactions with external experts, such as a quick video call or an exchange of text messages, that help meeting an expert’s scientific needs in (almost) real time. But there are disadvantages as well: virtual engagement might be uncomfortable for MSLs and experts alike, new technical skills and systems are required. Importantly, as the experience over the last few months has shown: while maintaining virtual relationships with already engaged experts is doable, connecting with and engaging new experts is very difficult and has proven all but impossible in some cases.

To get a better idea of the how virtual engagement is impacting medical affairs organizations and how to best adjust to the new normal we discussed the competencies needed to build and develop effective MSL teams in a recent webinar co-hosted by the Medical Science Liaison Society with Emmeline Igboekwe, Medical Science Liaison Lead - East at Chiesi and Robert Groebel, VP Global Medical at Monocl.

New skills are needed …

To set the stage for the discussion the webinar registrants were surveyed before the event and asked “Do you think there is a new set of skills necessary for MSLs to be effective and/or successful in a virtual environment?”.

The answer could hardly be any clearer: almost 90% of the surveyed MSLs answered yes and only 3% thought that their current skill set would be sufficient. The rest was not sure. The answers of MSLs managers/directors mirrored this finding with 90% Yes, 6% No and 4% I am not sure.

Building MSL Teams for Success

Those results did not come as a surprise to our panel; virtual interaction with experts did not exist at any scale before the pandemic. The change has forced MSLs and experts alike to become tech savvy and adopt potentially multiple new platforms in a hurry, e.g. while companies might mandate that their employees use a specific platform, experts themselves might prefer another one, adding to the technical challenges of connecting. On the bright side: change is nothing new for MSLs, they need to continuously evolve their skills to remain relevant to experts and therefore developing virtual engagement skills is just the latest in a long line of skills they had to pick-up over the years.

For medial affairs departments this fast shift to exclusively virtual engagement and the uncertainty about how the new normal will look six or twelve months down the road requires them to bring new systems online that allows MSL teams to be successful in that new world.

Technology is a critical success factor, Emmeline Igboekwe refers to an “infrastructure triangle”. All three pieces are required and need to work together for efficient interaction between MSLs and experts.

  • The company needs to provide systems that MSLs can use to share information in a secure and compliant way.
  • MSLs don’t just have to have the skill to use these systems but need to have the set-up in their home office to be able to utilize them without technical glitches. There is nothing like bad or dropped connections to turn a call into an annoyance.
  • Experts, likewise, need to be tech savvy and have the necessary equipment in their offices to be able to participate in virtual meetings with MSLs.

Building MSL Teams for Success

… and some old skills need to be honed

But it is not all about new technology. Some of the most seasoned experts might not embrace new technologies as much as their younger colleagues. More traditional ways of interacting such as emailing or calling might be the answer in those cases.

“In a recent survey, we asked 475 US based KOLs, what their preferred method of communication was with MSLs during the pandemic. Among other responses, 48% still prefer the very traditional method of the telephone. Don’t overthink the technology, simple and traditional communication methods still work.”

Dr Samuel Dyer, CEO, MSL Society

Email skills are also important but might create compliance issues that need to be addressed before data can be shared that way. In summary, it is critical for successful interactions that MSLs meet the experts where they are and provide the information in a way that doesn’t create road blocks.

The main challenge: engaging new experts

The main challenge for many MSLs has been successfully engaging new experts. Getting the attention of experts an MSL hasn’t interacted with before turns out to be both difficult, time consuming and often unsuccessful. Therefore, expert mapping has become even more important than before. A promising approach is to identify experts that fit the desired profile to a T and then obtain accurate, comprehensive profiles of the short-listed experts, e.g. what work have they undertaken recently, what other companies are they engage with, and what is their scientific point of view. Based on this information MSLs can now engage the expert with highly customized and relevant information rather than a generic message.

First contact is generally made via email and has to overcome two hurdles:

  • writing a subject line that breaks through the clutter and incentivizes the expert to actually open and read the email.
  • crafting a concise email that speaks to the specific interests and needs of the expert, shows that the MSL has taken the time to really understand them and is trying to engage them in a relevant and mutually beneficial manner.

Concise emails that contain relevant data and clearly communicate why expert should engage have the best chance to clear the hurdles and get an expert to open, read and - hopefully – reply.

Another challenge: hiring new MSLs

Another challenges medical affairs teams are facing is hiring new medical field team members. Traditional in-person interviews are not possible currently but given the importance of video conferencing for their daily work, conducting video interview is a good alternative. Asking candidates to give an online presentation - like they would to an expert - provides an excellent way of evaluating their presentation skills and video presence. Qualities like brevity, flexibility and the ability to listen in a focused way to get insights out of the generally shorter virtual interactions are important skills to look for when expanding the team.

Sharing a final practical tip

Asked to share one final practical tip the panel agreed: be short and simple in your communication, get to the point, understand how the expert wants to communicate and what drives successful engagement.

In addition, the panel discussed whether now is a good time to expand expert panels (staring at 15:33 minutes in the recording below), what competencies are important today for MSLs (19:05), how to successfully build a new MSL team (24:15) and the importance of MSLs having a clear understanding of the medical strategy (32:12).

You can listen to the entire webinar by clicking on this recording.


If you have any questions about how Monocl can help you deal with the challenges of virtual engagement, please book some time with one of our team members.

More information can be found here.

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