Pharmaceutical and life science companies have always carefully strategized how to disseminate high-level information to industry stakeholders. Now, there’s a growing demand for professional communicators who can convey complex scientific topics in a manner both engaging and digestible.
Relaying details about an ever-changing biopharmaceutical product portfolio isn’t a straightforward task. It can’t be done by just anyone. Instead, it takes a particular type of professional to successfully bridge the scientific and medical communication gap.
Enter the medical science liaison – therapeutic specialists and expert communicators who play an increasingly integral role on any medical affairs team.
But this is a relatively obscure yet distinguished professional path. For that reason, we’ve compiled guidelines that cover the roles, responsibilities, and best practices for would-be medical science liaisons.
What is a medical science liaison?
So, what is a medical science liaison? The role of a medical science liaison (MSL), sometimes referred to as a field medical director, was first envisioned and then trademarked by Upjohn Pharmaceuticals as: “Educational services – namely, initiation of drug studies in the laboratory and clinical settings and development of workshop symposia and seminars for physicians, medical societies, specialty organizations, academicians, in concert, concerned with drug-related medical topics.”
In other words, MSL professionals were scientifically trained field staff with the requisite knowledge and proven ability to engage and build relationships with key opinion leaders (KOLs). Over the years, the role has evolved, becoming increasingly more pivotal to an organization’s ability to stand out in a crowded marketplace.
According to Dr. Samuel Dyer, CEO of the Medical Science Liaison Society, the medical science liaison role is the best-kept secret in the life sciences industry. It’s not just the impressive average salary – just north of $160,000; they also get to be on the cutting edge of scientific innovation. And, best of all, MSLs can see the direct impact those medical advancements have on patient care. Per Dr. Dyer:
“MSLs are instrumental in the overall success of an organization and serve as a strategic resource in the lifecycle of a product. Medical Science Liaisons cultivate and maintain relationships with physicians, also known as Key Opinion, at clinics and research institutions.”
While the importance of MSLs is increasing, the community remains relatively small, particularly compared to other professions within the pharmaceutical and life science sector. As a result, there’s a significant opportunity for the right type of person.
What does the MSL role entail?
An MSL typically reports to the medical affairs department within a pharmaceutical, biotech, medical device, or medical diagnostic company.
At their essence, MSLs are gifted communicators and relationship cultivators. They maintain peer-to-peer relationships with top KOLs at major clinics and academic institutions. But the role goes far beyond that of an intermediary. According to the Medical Science Liaison Society, typical responsibilities include:
Engaging external stakeholders – While the methods of engagement depend on the specific MSL role, common activities include:
- Creating KOL engagement plans
- Collating data and actionable insights
- Identifying clinical investigators
- Relaying medical/scientific information
- Introducing internal and external stakeholders
- Attending medical conferences or medical congress
- Supporting external stakeholder research activities
- Replying to medical information requests
Collaborating with internal stakeholders – MSLs aid internal stakeholders with three essential tasks:
- Providing training
- Supporting clinical research teams
- Acting as subject matter expert (SME) for internal cross-functional teams
Maintaining MSL expertise – Seeing as the scientific and medical fields are constantly in flux, MSLs must stay up-to-date with the most recent discoveries, updates, and pharmacoeconomics; otherwise, they run the risk of becoming obsolete.
While these general responsibilities are universal, the specific activities for a given MSL position depend on several factors, including the type of pharmaceutical company, its location and therapeutic focus, and the specific phase of the product’s life cycle. That said, common MSL activities include:
- Attending medical conferences
- KOL relationship management
- KOL and healthcare professional education
- Providing scientific presentations
- Gathering data and insights
- Training and supporting sales forces
- Supporting advisory boards
- Developing tools
- Reviewing medical materials
- Coordinating company-sponsored research and/or trials
Who are medical science liaisons?
Not just anyone can become a medical science liaison and it’s important to note the medical science liaison challenges that come with the territory.
You must have the requisite skills, education, and advanced scientific training to join this illustrious field of medical professionals. As a result, a doctorate degree is the educational gold standard across the industry. The vast majority of MSLs boast either a Doctorate of Pharmacy (PharmD), a PhD, or a Master’s degree.
According to a 2020 MSL survey, 62% of MSL professionals are women and 38% men. Within the biopharma field, medical science liaisons typically concentrate on a specific therapeutic area, product, or diagnostic. Currently, the top seven therapeutic areas these professionals support in the U.S. are:
- Oncology – 31%
- Neurology/CNS/Neuroscience – 17%
- Rare diseases/orphan diseases – 11%
- Hematology – 10%
- Immunology – 9%
- Cardiovascular/thrombosis – 8%
- Diabetes/metabolic disorders – 6%
Guidelines for MSLs
In 2018, the Medical Science Liaison Society (MSLS) created the first set of medical science liaison guidelines for professionals within the field. While it covers an array of subjects, there are a few takeaways worth emphasizing. Its primary focus is on the proper and ethical way to engage KOLs:
1. Transparency and ethical communication matters
Medical science liaisons are not sales representatives.
Their primary role is to foster ethical, professional relationships with top KOLs with a professional mindset that prioritizes honesty, transparency, and integrity. They’re expected to facilitate up-to-date, accurate, and unbiased scientific information regarding a medical product or device and the therapeutic areas therein.
Because of this, anyone seeking to enter this field must have the requisite therapeutic, compliance, and core skills training. Additionally, they must be familiar with the company product and pipeline before ever facing externally. Best practices for the MSL onboarding period include training on relevant:
- Country medical laws and regulations
- Promotional codes
- Company standard operating procedures
- Coverage of healthcare systems and processes
- Proper etiquette (when working in operating theaters or clean rooms)
And because the medical field is constantly evolving, it’s crucial for MSLs to maintain MSL training and certified competency documentation.
2. Scientifically engage KOLs the right way
Quite often, MSLs will be the first person KOLs reach out to for inquiries regarding a product or device. Throughout a drug’s or device’s lifecycle, the MSL acts as the point of contact and spearheads the pre-, mid-, and post-launch plans.
When it comes to mapping KOL outreach, MSLs should never participate in targeting activities with commercial objectives. Instead, their focus should be on communicating with medical professionals who are respected and considered thought leaders within their area of expertise.
Engagement may consist of several different stages, including:
Introductory meetings – MSLs should proactively conduct introductory meetings with KOLs as well as various other important healthcare professionals. During these initial interactions, there should be no inclusion of off-label scientific exchange or product promotions. Instead, it’s an opportunity to:
Create an introduction and provide contact information
Review their areas of expertise
Discuss therapeutic responsibilities
Determine the KOLs areas of professional and practice interest
Scientific exchange meetings – These types of meetings are meant to gather insights and conduct a scientific dialogue between MSLs and key stakeholders. One of the primary intentions of such meetings is to further improve the provision of medical care by KOLs.
Patient interaction – MSLs may also interact with patient advocacy groups to share relevant scientific information and gather relevant insights about the patients’ concerns and needs. Because modern patient consumers are increasingly turning to social media to obtain medical information, MSLs are encouraged to seek out and build connections with relevant medical influencers.
Medical information requests – If requested—whether by the HCP, the medical affairs department, or R&D—MSLs may provide information so long as it falls within the auspices of the approved label indication or off-label information. Once more, all scientific exchanges should be truthful, non-misleading, and provided with all relevant context.
3. Do not provide items of value
When interacting with KOLs, medical science liaisons must be careful when it comes to gift-giving or activities that could be considered financially compromising. Per PhRMA Code, MSLs should not provide any item of value that could potentially interfere with a healthcare provider’s prescribing practices.
As PhRMA notes, this prohibition doesn’t just include obvious forms of direct compensation such as cash or cash equivalents:
“Providing items for healthcare professionals’ use that do not advance disease or treatment education — even if they are practice-related items of minimal value (such as pens, note pads, mugs, and similar “reminder” items with company or product logos) — may foster misperceptions that company interactions with healthcare professionals are not based on informing them about medical and scientific issues.”
One of the few exceptions to this rule is food (in some circumstances). If a presentation takes place during the HCP’s mealtime, MSLs may provide a modest meal as a business courtesy to a healthcare provider and their clinical staff who are also in attendance.
Empowering medical science liaisons
In a competitive marketplace that’s constantly in flux, medical science liaisons can help a medical affairs team cut through the noise to establish real and lasting connections between biopharma companies and HCPs.
And now, there are advanced tools like an insights management platform that can empower MSLs to foster dialog and professional relationships in entirely new ways. Specifically, to use asynchronous virtual engagement with rich capabilities that extend and enhance your relationships with KOLs, including:
- An invitation-only community environment
- Support for customer interactions
- The ability to conduct web conferences and webinars directly through the interface
- Support, coaching, templates, and tools
- Medical and legal compliance safeguards
- A holistic approach to insights gathering from expert selection to key takeaways
Interested in learning more about how you can empower your MSL leaders and medical affairs team? Request a demo and brief needs assessment with one of our experts.