Most notably, COVID-19 has transformed the landscape for medical science liaisons (MSLs) by forcing them to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances.
The disruptive effects of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) have rippled through every facet of our health care system, from the way we live to how we work and communicate among ourselves. The pharmaceutical industry is no exception to COVID-19’s disrupting influence.
Most notably, COVID-19 has transformed the landscape for medical science liaisons (MSLs) by forcing them to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances. MSLs are the field-facing medical and scientific branch of pharmaceutical companies.
They cultivate and preserve relationships with health care professionals and key opinion leaders (KOLs). Essentially, MSLs are the bridge between pharmaceutical companies, health care professionals, and providers across the care spectrum.
They concentrate on a specific disease state or therapeutic area in line with their company’s products and ensure that these products are used effectively throughout their entire lifecycle. Furthermore, MSLs serve as a scientific resource to internal and external stakeholders by providing insights on relevant scientific information to the medical community.1
In general, most MSL teams are comprised of individuals with advanced scientific backgrounds that usually include a doctorate, such as a PharmD, PhD, or MD. Pharmacists are medication experts with a comprehensive understanding of drug therapy, patient needs, and the health care system, making them ideal for the MSL role.
According to an annual survey by the Medical Science Liaison Society, PharmD was the most common degree (40%) held by an MSL, followed by PhDs (37%).2 There are several ways that pharmacists can transition into an MSL role, such as leveraging their extensive clinical knowledge and experience, completing a post-graduate biopharmaceutical industry fellowship, or building upon their experience as a pharmaceutical sales representative.
MSLs have been significantly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, given the nature of their daily operations. Although company size, disease state, and geographical location are the main determinants of how much an MSL will travel, the common underlying theme of MSL activities is field work.3
Whether it be by car or air, for many MSLs, traveling 75% of the time is not unusual.4 An MSL’s area or territory can range from a single state to an entire US region. To effectively establish and maintain relationships with KOLs, MSLs have to meet in-person frequently with their target audience.
Furthermore, MSLs regularly travel to attend internal meetings, medical conferences, and educational lectures. COVID-19 has grounded MSLs with travel restrictions and cancellation of events has effectively limited their in-person presence and networking.
The most apparent effect on MSLs is the reduced engagements with KOLs. Cultivating authentic and long-lasting relationships with KOLs is largely a function of the fundamental pharmaceutical concept of “reach and frequency.”5
MSLs generally rely on the quantity of face-to-face interactions with KOLs to disseminate important clinical information and insights about their disease area and products. Spiking COVID-19 cases around the world have left hospitals inundated and operating at full capacity. Subsequently, MSLs have restricted access to health care providers and institutions.
In these unique times, physicians need to be physicians first to patients, and therefore, have limited or no time to interact with MSLs.6 Furthermore, MSLs traveling for live meetings at health care institutions could potentially put themselves at risk, along with patients and the providers they meet, given the highly contagious nature of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Many institutions have also become wary of in-person interactions and have limited the number of MSL engagements or suspended them entirely.5
COVID-19 has critically curtailed the exchange of scientific information and gathering of insights by MSLs. More than 20 scientific congresses and conferences essential to clinical data dissemination and engagement have already been postponed or cancelled.7 Moreover, clinical trials in many therapeutic areas have been disrupted, which has slowed the flow of new clinical data available for MSLs to disseminate. For example, according to GlobalData, nearly 200 companies have stopped or delayed their clinical trials because of the pandemic.8
MSLs’ job security has also been challenged by the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The MSL Society conducted a global study in which 46% of the 579 MSLs surveyed reported that they are concerned about job security.9
The MSL position is crucial to the information flow between industry and providers and the value they bring to the clinical drug therapy ecosystem. Despite this important role, pharmaceutical companies are being pressured by the pandemic to reduce or reimagine their field force activities, including those of MSLs.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted the MSL landscape; however, MSLs have promptly adapted to this crisis. Travel restrictions and the suspension of face-to-face interactions have driven MSLs to shift to virtual engagements. MSLs have continued to engage with KOLs and share clinical information at conferences and congresses through virtual platforms, such as Zoom and WebEx.
COVID-19 has largely contributed to the rapid adoption of digital technology within the pharmaceutical industry. Digital meeting tools have the potential to optimize all aspects of the field force operations.
Companies should re-evaluate the impact of face-to-face engagements compared with virtual engagements for KOLs, especially during this pivotal time when most health care providers and institutions have set up and become accustomed to using digital channels for engagements.
Although in-person engagements may never be completely replaced, virtual engagements can maximize the number of meetings and minimize expenditures. In the long term, MSLs should rethink their strategies to disseminate information, specifically by implementing a digital strategy in all their professional activities.10
Between travel restrictions, inaccessible KOLs, and suspended conferences, MSLs have had more flexibility to reallocate support to other functions. Medical information call centers have been experiencing heavy workload during the pandemic in the form of inquiries about access to medications, on- and off-label uses, and effects of missed or delayed medication.11
Although their routine activities have been curtailed, MSLs have refocused their efforts to on-call support for in-house medical affairs teams. Additionally, MSLs have supported teams in therapeutic areas currently strained due to COVID-19 (eg respiratory, infectious disease).
Moreover, MSLs have used their newfound availability to tend to tasks on their lingering to-do list that often get overlooked during their fast-paced schedules. Some of these tasks include spending more time reviewing scientific literature, regrouping through internal MSL team meetings, preparing slide decks, and refining their soft skills and business acumen.12
Tending to these tasks and professional development will support future engagements once MSLs resume their in-person interactions.
In conclusion, the impact of COVID-19 has disrupted industries and professions worldwide, and MSLs’ normal work routine has been impacted heavily. Fortunately for MSLs, they have begun adapting to the transformations in their daily operations by rapidly identifying, prioritizing, and implementing innovative strategies. Whether it be through adopting digital technology or other unconventional methods, MSLs will continue redefining the way they engage and spread information.
COVID-19 may have only accelerated the changes that would have inevitably occurred for MSLs. The MSL landscape is constantly evolving, and the future of its operations and interactions remain uncertain.
However, we can be confident that MSLs will always be ready to adapt and ensure that they can effectively engage with providers and KOLs to disseminate important clinical and drug therapy-related information to their audience.