Medical Affairs Focus

Thoughts on Global Medical Affairs

Category Archives: KOL

Topic 32: Big Data in MA – Revisited


A couple of years ago I wrote a post (check it out here) on the emergence of big data for Medical Affairs. Given the rapid evolution of big data, two years is a long time ago so it’s worth revisiting this topic.

Let’s recap what we mean by “big data.” It is a broad concept, but for our discussion today we will be using big data to refer to the new capability to pull together huge quantities of data that were not directly generated for the purpose they are now being applied. Biopharma has excelled at generating proprietary data sets for a specific purpose, but big data take advantage of non-proprietary data that was generated for a different purpose by applying it in a new way.
These external data sources range in structure, format and value. The real trick to big data is pulling the data from disparate sources, efficiently cleaning it and standardizing it to allow it to be cross-referenced, then finding novel ways to use it.

Example of Big Data in MA

In the last couple of years we have seen examples of companies set up to provide big data services to MA. I will single out one here as an example, but this is not intended as an endorsement. I have no relationship with this company or practical experience with their products.

The company, Med’meme, is a case study of big data in MA. Based on their website, Med’meme takes large, public data sets – in this case lists of scientific presentations from medical meetings and peer-reviewed journals and clinical trial information at least – and in their backroom they apparently standardize it to make all those data cross referenceable. How well they do this, how complete and how accurate the data is, I can’t say. But, when you think about that data source as an MA professional I am sure you are jumping to a bunch of potential uses – like the ability to rank KOLs, to identify new KOLs, to track TA trends in publishing, to identify potential investigators, to be alerted to new publication identification, etc.

And that is the beauty of big data – there does not appear to be anything in their data set that has not been available (with some costs) to biopharma for years. Their service is finding a way to scrape it all together, standardize it and allow it to be searched effectively.

Buy v Build in Big Data

When I first published the article about big data I had a number of “buy vs. build” questions. The reality of big data in its current form is about re-using publically available data in novel ways, so building it internally is unlikely to produce proprietary value. However, combining these data sets with proprietary data, or asking interesting and unique questions of the data is something that can remain proprietary – so some hybrid solutions may be valuable.

If big data is not a part of the MA information technology planning it should be.  This capability represents an opportunity for strategic advantage in the short-term until it is widely adopted.


Big data is a new reality. A huge new data set, the Sunshine Act database, has just come on-line, and other data sources are increasingly making their data available for these types of analysis. Expect to see major development in this area in the coming couple of years.

What has been your experience with big data in MA? Leave a comment.


Topic13: Medical Information Groups

I was talking with a friend the other day who is charged with running the medical information (MI) function for their small pharma company.  Currently they outsource the MI function and she was wondering if it made sense to bring the function in-house of keep the current arrangement.  We discussed how effectively the outsourced MI function works with the current MA group, including the MSL field force, and the answer is that they have some formal links but rarely talk.  We talked some more and reached some conclusions, but I thought this might be a good topic for a post.

MI is both a regulatory mandated function, and a critical component in achieving MA’s educational and public outreach goals.  It is possible to structure and run the MI function merely to meet the regulatory requirements but that would represent a significant waste of an opportunity.

From a regulatory perspective, the MI function needs to be structured to answer calls from both patients and healthcare professionals (HCPs), differentiate between inquires and pharmacovigilance calls and route the calls appropriately, answer questions directly when appropriate, distribute accurate and approved materials to appropriate audiences, and develop outgoing medical communications on important issues (Dear Doctor letters).  It needs to be staffed by people with appropriate qualifications to answer medical and technical questions about the use of company’s products.

But, some organizations gain much more benefit from their investment in MI.  For one thing, MI is often the first sign that a problem is occurring relating to our products or issues are being raised concerning the scientific underpinnings of our products.  Spikes in the type and content of questions help provide a Zeitgeist view of the needs for education in the HCP community.  But, this only works if MA listens.  There must be processes and systems in place to ensure that MI is coding their contacts in a manner that allows for analysis and reporting in place to ensure that the information is summarized on a timely basis.  Finally, clear responsibilities need to be established for who will review and respond to this information.

Other organizations utilize the MI resources to more effectively partner with the MSL field force.  MI and MSL groups tend to talk with related but mutually exclusive audiences.  Given the limitations on MSL time, they need to focus that time on those HCPs that can offer the greatest impact on the medical community, the so-called Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs).  Based on research I have seen in the past, it is very rare for a KOL to call MI.  They tend to expect the answers to come to them through MSLs or research on the internet.  Non-KOL HCPs tend to call MI.  Given that, the opportunities for MSLs and MI to interact is not in terms of serving the same HCPs but instead in terms of “having each other’s backs.”  Often when MSLs are interacting with HCPs, they need to provide those HCPs with additional information and support.  MI is well suited to provide that information and support.  And, when MI is answering questions for HCPs they encounter situations that require more in-depth support, and MSLs are well positioned to provide it.

Establishing a strong partnership between MI and MSL groups brings value to both sides, yet it is not as common as you might expect.  Sometimes it’s due to organization structure – the two groups have unrelated reporting relationships and thus lack incentive to interact.  Other times it’s due to a difference in philosophy, where one of the two groups does not see value in interacting with the other.  Regardless, there is value in establishing this relationship, but it needs to be clearly structured and actively managed to avoid either group “dumping” on the other.

This leads back to the discussion of outsourcing MI.  To really gain value from MI, it needs to tie in easily with the rest of the MA organization.  It may be possible to pull that off with an outsourcer, but its unlikely.  For that reason, I suggest that insourcing MI brings more value to the organization.

My final thought on MI relates to technology.  A call does not have to be a phone call.  Web chats are significantly more efficient to manage and allow for careful scripting of responses.  Providing this service on an after-hours basis may allow more of those KOLs discussed earlier to actually connect.  And, I have yet to see a company develop an MI app, but I think we can’t be too far from having one – just tap the icon and link directly to an MI chat or other dialog.


What has been your experience with MI and how it relates to other function in MA?  Please leave your comments below.  And if this is your first time on the blog, please sign up on the right to receive email updates of the latest posts – don’t worry its spam free.

Topic11: MSL Team Leadership Challenge

I received a call the other day from an old friend who had taken on a new job.  Her job involved developing the North American MA function for a non-US pharma company.  One of her first tasks was to consolidate and expand the MSL function in the NA. She was very concerned because her budget was fairly limited given the ground she needed to cover with her MSLs.  She wondered whether she could “stretch” her staff by using team leads that have both substantial HCP support and managerial responsibilities.

While practical considerations, especially for very small or very new MSL teams, sometimes dictate the need for MSL Team Leaders to have both substantial HCP support and managerial responsibilities, over time these types of models tend to be unstable.  When Team Leads have substantial HCP responsibilities those responsibilities tend to absorb the time for managing their team.  It is essentially a case of the urgent driving out the important.  In an effort to be responsive, HCP needs tend to trump other requirements, especially requirements that can be put off like team management.  As a result, despite best intents the team suffers from a lack of leadership. And, in cases where the team already has some challenges, like lack of experience or entering a new therapeutic area, this lack of focus can derail the entire MSL effort.

While it is important for the MSL team leads to maintain contact with some very targeted HCPs, it must be a small portion of their workload and their managers need to ensure that they do not lose their focus on their primary responsibility – the leadership of the team.  The important cannot be allowed to be a victim of the urgent.

So what is the magic number where a more-or-less full time team leader is needed?  Putting aside all the caveats that the number varies by TA, product complication, HCP need, etc., I would say the number is between 8 and 12.  Less than 8 it does not make much sense to have a full time-ish team leader.  Over 12 and it too much work for one person.

What has your experience been?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments.  If you are new to the blog, please add your email on the right to receive a notice when new posts occur.

Topic4: Key Opinion Leaders – Managing KOL Interactions Efficiently

Identifying the right KOLs to focus on with the limited resources available is the critical first step and in the last post we discussed some alternate approaches.  Once those KOLs are identified, the next key to success is ensuring that the interactions with the KOLs produce the greatest value for both the KOLs and the pharmaceutical company.

Many organizations that invest in identifying KOLs, often fail to ensure that those KOLs are actually being well served by MA’s outreach efforts.  They provide their field force of MSLs with the names of the KOLs but very little direct direction.  The theory for this hands off approach is that the MSLs are expected to have a peer to peer interaction with the KOL and thus they want that interaction to guide the discussions.  While this is certainly the only way to discuss topics that are not suitable for proactive engagements (see this for further discussion on proactivity), for those topics that are suitable for proactive discussion it places an undue burden on the KOL to know what questions to ask.  In other words, KOLs don’t know what they don’t know and thus, when appropriate, benefit from the direct, proactive engagement of the MSL.

The only way to know how to provide the greatest value from direct engagement is to start by identifying the goals.  What need does the pharma company hope to support through its informational and educational outreach efforts?  The needs of the KOLs may be self-evident to the MA scientific interactions with the KOLs, but if it is not they will need to conduct some research to find out, which may be formal or informal.  Regardless of the approach, however, the needs should be defined by the KOLs and not by MA’s commercial colleagues in order to avoid any promotional bias.  The needs can then be expressed in terms of goals for MA’s outreach efforts.

With the goals in hand, a structured approach can be developed for these proactive outreach effort.  Plans can be developed on the type of outreach to be done, and materials developed to support that outreach.  And, once the plan is in place, progress against that plan can be tracked, measured and reported.

It is truly amazing to me how many MSLs lack a clear plan for their KOL engagement.  Operating without a plan denies the MSL the ability to measure their progress against a standard.  Operating without a plan denies their managers metrics they need to evaluate their performance.  And operating without plan makes justifying the investment in MSLs more difficult for MA leadership.

Building a detailed plan for each MSL that not only defines their KOLs but also details on a time-boxed basis the expected activities is a critical part of effective KOL engagement.  These plans can be in almost any form as long as they can be translated into direct measurement.

These measures should be as results oriented as possible.  Activity driven metrics may be easier but they rarely align directly with goals.  If the results sought relate to growth in understanding of a disease state, for example, then the measure may require some primary research.

Finally, those measurements need to be analyzed and fed back to the MSLs as well as their managers so that everyone can learn from the results of the outreach efforts.

Some of the vendors I mentioned in this post also support MSL plan management and tracking.  More about that in future posts.

Please share your experiences in the comments.

Legal Note:  All information and interpretations presented are only the opinion of the author(s) who are not lawyers. And, even if we were lawyers, given the wide range of interpretations of the current regulations you would still need to get the input from your own compliance organization. 

Topic 4: Key Opinion Leaders – Identifying the Right KOLs

The importance of KOLs in achieving medical affair’s goals was discussed in the Introduction.  Left open was the question of how are these KOLs identified.  There are a number of different approaches to identifying KOLs and in this post I will review those approaches and discuss their strengths and weaknesses.  I will also look into the vendors that can support KOL identification.Per


In the past, the standard approach for KOL identification was to hire good Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) from various regions and rely on their Personal Networks to identify the right KOLs in their region.

This Personal Network approach has some strengths:

  • It is very fast, since the MSLs typically already know the KOLs in their personal networks
  • Good chance for strong access, since the MSLs typically target KOLs they have a existing relationship, they can often rapidly gain access to those KOLs for educational discussions
  • It is inexpensive, since there are no additional costs from outside vendors

The Personal Network has some significant weaknesses:

  • MSLs don’t know who they don’t know, some important KOLs may simply not show up on their radar because their personal networks do not cross
  • MSLs are biased toward KOLs they have strong relationships who may or may not be the KOLs that are the most effective “hubs” of their formal and informal networks
  • MSLs may specifically avoid “difficult” KOLs simply because they do not want to interact with them

The Personal Network approach is most effective in a very small, highly technical specialty medical community setting.  In these types of communities, since there are so few people involved, everyone knows everyone in the community and the risks of the Personal Network approach are mitigated.


The next most common approach is the use of Secondary Research networks.  Secondary Research networks are developed by gathering information that is publically available about potential KOLs for secondary sources.  Information that is publically available may include:

  • Name
  • Degrees and institutions
  • Specialties
  • Institutional affiliation
  • Authorship
  • Conference presentations
  • Principle investigator
  • Committee involvement
  • Board membership

The list can go on.  This information is collected; each piece is given a weight based on the what is perceived to be likely to contribute to their being a KOL.  The weighting produces a combined value which is then used to identify an individual as a KOL.

The Secondary Research approach has strengths:

  • Fact based, eliminating personal bias found in the Personal Network approach
  • Broad view, looking at everyone in the therapeutic area, not limited to individuals in a specific institution or with a specific background
  • Less expensive than primary research, since the information in question is available in public databases

The Secondary Research approach has some weaknesses:

  • Backward looking, since it relies on a preponderance of publically available information, it tends to favor those people who have contributed for the longest period of time
  • Academic oriented, since it relies on public databases of information it tends to value those who publish and speak the most and those people tend to be academics
  • Subject to weighting bias, if the weighting of the information does not correspond to what is truly makes someone a KOL, the exercise can produce seemingly valid data that misses actual KOLs

The Secondary Research approach works best in therapeutic areas that are fairly static and dominated by academicians.  In these types of environments, there is a strong correlation between age and importance and between academia and practice.


The third approach to KOL identification is Primary Research.  The Primary Research approach identifies who is a KOL by polling the physicians treating a disease state and directly asking them who influences them.  These responses are then tabulated and the names of those individuals cited the most are given the most weight and are thus considered KOLs.

The Primary Research approach as its strengths:

  • Accuracy, this is the only approach that actually asks physicians who influences them and thus is free of any bias or miscalculation
  • Broad view, this approach does not limit itself to only KOLs already known by the organization
  • Additional insight, at the same time that physicians are polled about influence, there is an opportunity to gain additional insight into their educational needs

The Primary Research approach also has weaknesses:

  • Expensive, all direct research is expensive requiring a direct interaction with many physicians and potentially the cost for honoraria
  • Sample bias, the sample of physicians polled may be biased, especially if the sample size is kept down by budgetary concerns
  • Time consuming, it can take a number of weeks to conduct this type of research

The Primary Research approach is the best approach for less established disease states, less academically driven disease states and for any groups looking for less well established KOLs.


Any of these three approaches may work, and they are often used in combination.

For example, I had a client who was entering a new disease state and thus needed to establish their MSL group from ground up.  During the initial six months, as the MSLs were coming on board and being trained, the company allowed each MSL to use their Personal Network.  Once the group was fully formed, they worked with a vendor to conduct a Secondary Research analysis of the community and create the initial list of KOLs to be targeted.  After the MSLs had been in the field for six more months, they identified a related set of potential KOLs that the Secondary Research had not targeted, and they commissioned a targeted Primary Research effort to identify all the KOLs in this new group.

I have had other clients that used the Primary Research approach to develop their initial list of KOLs then used the Secondary Research approach to continue to track those KOLs and ensure that their staff was fully up to speed on their activities.


Some vendors that support these types of research include:

Secondary Research: Heartbeat Experts, SteepRock, OpenQ, ThoughtLeader Select

Primary Research: AlphaDetail, Encuity Research (full disclosure – I used to be a part of Campbell Alliance, the parent company to Encuity)

In my next post, I will discuss how these KOL interactions should be managed.

As always, I am curious to know your experience with KOL identification.  Please leave comments below.

Topic4: Key Opinion Leaders – Introduction

Educating the healthcare community on new information is both an obligation of and an important benefit for a pharmaceutical company.  Impacting the knowledge of the healthcare community may be the single most valuable service that a medical affairs organization offers.

As much as a medical affairs organization may wish to educate all healthcare providers, the reality is that resources are always limited.  Given limited resources, most organizations look to educate people who will go on to share that education with others.

The fact is that healthcare providers, like almost all specialized professions, have strong formal and informal networks.  These networks may be directly associated with their institution, like a hospital, or indirectly formed by friends and mentors developed over many years.  These formal and informal networks exist because they are valuable to the members of the network.  That value takes many forms – from help with personal job searches, to patient referrals across geographies.  One value that these networks provide is supporting the group’s knowledge on their specific specialty.  If one member of the network discovers something of value concerning their specialty, they will very often share it with others within the network.   These formal and informal networks provide a multiplier effect for education – educating the right person in a network can result in multiple members of the network benefiting from the same information.

Medical affairs organizations tap into this network capability to multiply the impact of their limited resources.  Medical affairs organization look for individuals who serve as information “hubs” in their formal and informal network and apply their education efforts to those individuals, expecting that the information will then be conveyed out to the “spokes”.  As a short hand, many organizations use the term Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) for those individuals who serve as information “hubs” of their formal and informal networks.  The term stems from the fact that others in their network value the KOLs opinion that a piece of new information is worth knowing.  Other terms for these individuals include Thought Leaders, Subject Matter Experts, Scientific Community Leaders, etc.  For simplicity sake, I will use the term KOLs.

Like everything in medical affairs, educating KOLs is rife with compliance concerns.  These concerns primarily hinge on the difference between education and promotion.  The way I like to describe it is:

Education (or scientific communication) is focused on presenting valuable information to healthcare providers to ensure that they are aware of the latest scientific information.

Promotion is encouraging a healthcare provider to use a given treatment.

Most organizations would cite disease state education as a clear example of the difference.  Disease state education is focused on the disease state in general and not on any particular treatment.  Therefore it is education focused not promotional focused.

Where things start getting “trickier” is around product-specific education.  Some organizations allow it and some do not.  For more in depth discussion on this topic, see this post.

Regardless of where your organization lands on the education question, there are a number of best practices that any organization that educates KOLs should be using.  I will discuss them further in the following posts:

As always, I am curious to know your opinion.  How would you describe pharma’s efforts to educate KOLs?  Leave your comments below.

Legal Note:  All information and interpretations presented are only the opinion of the author(s) who are not lawyers. And, even if we were lawyers, given the wide range of interpretations of the current regulations you would still need to get the input from your own compliance organization.  Simply put – your mileage may vary.