Much has been written about how Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) are driving pharmaceutical Sales Representatives to the brink of extinction. While the demise of the Sales Rep has been greatly exaggerated – there are still approx. 70,000 active in the US – it is true that the number have shrunk in recent years by about 30% from the 2005 high of 102,000. During the same time, the number of Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) has increased quite dramatically, between 2001 and 2020 their numbers are forecasted to grow by 300%.
What Makes MSL so Valuable and in Demand?
The outlook for MSLs and those considering that career is therefore quite rosy. The question is: what drives this increase in importance of MSLs, and is it sustainable?
Here we take a look at the eight most important factors that contribute to the increasingly vital and prominent role MSLs play in today’s healthcare industry:
1 . Pharmaceutical products are more complex and personalized and therefore require a lot more explanation than yesterday’s “one-size-fits-all” blockbuster drugs. Rapid advances in genomics as well as a growing number of orphan drugs and personalized treatment approaches leave healthcare providers (HCP) with a great need for detailed medical and scientific information that highly trained MSLs are able to provide. One example of this trend is oncology – an estimated 73% of cancer drugs currently in development may be tailored to a person’s genetic profile.
2 . HCPs are swamped with information and unable to keep up. A recent study claims that a physician would have to read 29 hours a day to keep up with all the new publications. In this onslaught of data, MSLs provide relief: they are scientific peers that HCPs rely on for new scientific insights about diseases, treatment approaches as well as newly available products that might benefit their patients. An MSL who can quickly provide the specific information a KOL is seeking is a valued resource.
3 . KOLs are looking for unbiased information that they can trust. In the environment of unmanageable amounts of data, complex science and more but smaller product launches, KOL want to make sure that no commercial considerations have influenced the information.
4 . Administrative tasks, especially electronic medical records (EMR), are time consuming and leave HCPs less time for things like meeting with sales reps. As a consequence, more than 50% of all HCPs now refuse to see sales reps at all. One of the main complaints of the doctors, particularly in specialty fields, is that sales reps provide stale information that they have already seen either through their own research or during previous meetings with the reps. HCPs make time for MSLs, however. A study by the Medical Science Liaison Society found, that the average MSL-physician interaction lasted more than an hour. This shows that healthcare providers value the exchange with MSLs and rely on them for information and insight over and above what they themselves have the time to research.
5 . Information and insight are not a one-way street and MSLs facilitate the flow of information not just from the pharma company to HCPs but also in reverse. While HCPs rely on information they receive from MSLs, they also communicate real-life evidence and other insights they gain from working with patients every day. Shared internally by the MSL this information can inform decision making, incl. drug development strategy.
6 . The stakeholder universe is expanding and diversifying. Physicians and especially the KOLs among them are still the most important group MSLs engage with but their role is widening to include other key stakeholders, such as payers, allied health professionals, and even patient advocacy groups. One important underlying reason for this broadening of audiences beyond physicians is the increasing emphasis within the healthcare industry on patient-centric care approaches that focus on value and outcomes while reducing cost.
7 . MSLs are getting involved earlier in the drug development process to ensure that the drug eventually being launched meets the needs of patients. The insights they bring back from their extensive discussions with HCPs can inform drug development as early as Phase II trials.
8 . MSLs are not just for pharmaceutical companies anymore: biotech companies, veterinary health, medical device, and diagnostic companies increasingly realize, that they, too, need to provide the unbiased and scientifically deep information pharma MSLs are sharing with healthcare providers and KOLs.
MSLs Address a Critical Need in the Changing Healthcare Industry
The healthcare industry is going through a period of dramatic changes. We are seeing a complete paradigm shift away from launching a few blockbuster drugs to more frequent, smaller launches of personalized treatments. Our healthcare system is moving away from the old fee-for-service approach to a value- and outcomes-based system and from closely-held paper records to collecting massive amounts of data via EHR and real-life data.
Add to that, that more scientific and medical data is published every day than any one person can possibly handle and the raise of the MSL doesn’t come as a surprise. As scientific peers, as sources of unbiased information, as conduit of information between the healthcare provider community and the drug developers MSLs play a vital role and - as the healthcare industry continues to change and evolve - that role is likely to increase in importance and opportunities for Medical Science Liaisons are abound.