If you look at job descriptions for Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs), chances are that on the very top of the list of responsibilities you will find language like this:
- Build and maintain solid and credible relationships with the medical community.
- Educate and support key opinion leaders (KOLs) with the most current educational material.
- Through appropriate scientific exchange, build and maintain professional relationships with external stakeholders.
Supporting, educating and interacting with healthcare professionals (HCPs) in general and KOLs in particular, is considered the key responsibility of MSLs. There is growing recognition that MSLs play a central role in making sure information flows the other direction as well: form the medical community back to the company.
Field Insights for Internal Decision Making
The same qualities that make MSLs great scientific resources for HCPs make them valuable for a pharmaceutical company’s information gathering:
They are highly trained experts who are in regular contact not just with healthcare practitioners who treat patients on a daily basis but also with leading minds in their field of expertise. They attend medical conferences and read scientific publications to stay up to date.
During the course of their work, MSLs learn about successes, questions, issues and challenges HCPs have treating patients. They also learn unmet medical needs or get feedback on clinical trials. This is valuable information they can relay back to their companies.
These key insights can be used by pharmaceutical companies not just to improve upon the educational and training materials for their medical field teams but also to inform internal decision making, drive the medical plan, help with setting strategic priorities, and fill knowledge gaps.
Gathering Information in the Field – What MSLs Can Learn
Through their discussions with KOLs, MSLs can gather a broad variety of information and insights, such as:
Clinical data reviews with KOLs can lead to insights about how the clinical data is received, how well the drug meets unmet clinical needs and whether there is any other criteria that should be considered, e.g. should additional comparator drugs be included. These changes can cut costs in the long run and help with the drug reimbursement application down the line.
KOLs can provide information about product positioning and safety. They can answer questions about how they are planning to use the drug, what competitive products they might prescribe instead and in general, how they make prescribing decisions. HCPs can pass on concerns about a drug’s safety profile, relay real world insights with regard to safety concerns and how they managed them.
Patient characteristics such as age, gender, race and comorbidities can impact a physician’s treatment decision. Information about which factors influence treatment decisions is highly valuable to pharmaceutical companies and might provide insights into gaps in their data or their educational material.
Similarly, pharmaceutical companies need to know whether - and if so which - diagnostic tests a physician will need or want to have done before prescribing the drug.
For an MSL gathering these crucial insights is an ongoing process that can start as early as during clinical trials and continues through pre-launch, launch, post-launch and well into the life cycle management stage.
Transforming Data into Insights: There Isn’t an App for That - Yet
Information and data collected by MSLs in the field, however, are only valuable and useful if they can be distilled down into actionable insights. Extracting insight from data and presenting it in an easily understandable format is highly non-trivial and time consuming. This is especially true for medical data that comes in so many different formats: from lab reports, to x-ray images and physician’s notes. At least as of now - there isn’t an app for that and until recently the available computational tools weren’t powerful enough.
Modern technologies, such as machine learning algorithms, can now be employed to transform the disparate data gathered in the field into actionable insights.
MSLs will continue to be the critical point for medical and scientific contact between pharma companies and KOLs. While historically their role has been mostly in educating and supporting KOLs, the age of easy wireless communication, powerful mobile devices, big data, and artificial intelligence is turning that one-directional flow of information into a two-way street. Increasingly, MSLs will be tasked with gathering information in the field that will – when cleaned up, analyzed and distilled down – facilitate decision making throughout the entire drug development pipeline.