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February 24, 2020

MSLs vs. medical affairs: how do they differ, and what are their roles?

Both roles are critical to life science organizations. Learn the difference between them and how insights management benefits both.
Article updated June 2023.

Medical science liaisons (MSLs) and medical affairs professionals are critical to pharmaceutical organizations. While there are some similarities in the roles, and some individuals may evolve from one role into another, there are also important distinctions. So what is the difference between medical science liaison vs medical affairs?

Here’s a quick explainer of how the roles of medical science liaison and medical affairs are similar and different. Plus, an explanation of how insights management can benefit each.

What is an MSL?

What is a medical science liaison? The Medical Science Liaison Society describes the typical responsibilities of an MSL position or medical liaison to include:

  1. Engaging external stakeholders: Developing KOL engagement plans, collecting insights, identifying clinical investigators, communicating medical/ scientific data, connecting internal and external stakeholders, providing conference support, supporting external stakeholder research activities, and responding to medical information requests.
  2. Collaborating with internal stakeholders: Providing training, contributing to medical strategy planning, supporting clinical trial research teams, and serving as an SME on internal cross-functional teams.
  3. Maintaining MSL expertise: Remaining current on scientific knowledge, maintaining specific knowledge on a disease state or therapeutic area, and of pharmacoeconomics, coordinating activities with other field personnel in the territory while following the medical science liaison guidelines.

The MSLS also states that the following activities are undertaken by more than 90 percent of MSLs: Attending medical congresses (95%), management of KOL relationships (95%), educating KOLs and other healthcare professionals (93%), and delivering scientific presentations (92%).

Medical affairs can manage insights more effectively in a single flexible platform.

What is medical affairs?

From the Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs:

“Many of the roles that medical affairs departments are currently responsible for originated out of the commercial side of the business. As physicians desired additional clinical information about a drug, the need arose for a dedicated staff who would develop responses to these medical inquiries. The same dynamic already existed for any other traditional medical affairs role, such as developing medical publications or communicating with physicians in the field. Traditionally, commercial sub-teams handled these responsibilities, even though they were more oriented toward support and not directly tied to prescriptions and drug sales.”

The role of a medical affairs professional has evolved. As regulatory scrutiny has increased around the interactions between physicians and pharmaceutical companies, the traditional medical affairs role has transformed from just commercial oversight into more autonomous groups and roles.

According to the Accreditation Council, “…medical affairs is establishing the foundation upon which the road to commercial success is built. These roles were conceptualized to support internal stakeholders – such as sales and marketing – directly or through services provided to external stakeholders, such as healthcare providers.”

Regarding medical science liaison vs. medical affairs, there are some overlapping duties and distinct differences.

The similarities between MSLs and medical affairs professionals:

  1. Both roles must demonstrate significant levels of fluency in the organization’s science and therapeutic area
  2. Both must be succinct communicators and generate high levels of trust with internal and external stakeholders

The differences between MSLs and medical affairs professionals:

  1. MSLs must typically carry higher levels of credentials and scientific acumen within their area of expertise
  2. MSLs generate the data and affirm the findings of an organization’s new technology or therapy on which medical affairs representatives rely in their marketing and sales efforts, particularly when clinicians and healthcare administrators are the target audience
  3. Simply put, medical affairs support the commercial side of the business, including sales and marketing. MSLs’ primary responsibility is to engage with physicians and HCPs through scientific and clinical discussions, as indicated by the activities that tend to consume the lion’s share of their bandwidth.

How can both MSLs and medical affairs professionals benefit from insights management?

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how valuable KOLs’ time is and how these experts may become more selective about which events to attend in person. One of the primary medical science liaison challenges post-pandemic will be engaging KOLs to maximize the quality of insight while minimizing inconvenience to participating experts.

Fortunately, MSLs with access to an insights management platform that incorporates asynchronous virtual engagement have an additional tool at their disposal. By engaging KOLs via asynchronous engagement, MSLs can easily tailor digital engagement to meet the varied needs of KOLs. In doing this, constraints around time coordination are avoided, KOL participation increases, and insights can be gained in two to three weeks instead of two to three months.

With options like asynchronous collaboration in the mix, MSLs and medical affairs professionals can take advantage of insights management and virtual engagement to strengthen key opinion leader engagement. To learn more about how the insights gap affects MSLs and medical affairs teams, download our white paper.

Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs. What is med affairs?
Medical Science Liaison Society. The role of MSLs.

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