A Rare Species: The Medical Device KOL

When writing about key opinion leaders (KOLs) in the healthcare industry we focus almost exclusively on how the pharmaceutical industry relies on these clinical and scientific thought leaders and experts. Much less is written about how medical device companies work with KOLs.

Within pharma the reliance on KOLs differs by specialty, developers of cancer drugs, for example, rely heavily on KOLs. A 2015 study showed that 60% of healthcare providers stated that national key opinion leaders have the most impact on their treatment decisions. This does not come as a big surprise: in a field that creates information, e.g. clinical trial data, new treatment approaches, or real-world evidence at a rate that nobody can keep up with, recommendations from experts are of great value.

Medical device companies, on the other hand, rely on KOLs far less than their pharma peers. But why is that?

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KOL in Medical Devices – A Chicken And Egg Problem

A study referenced in this article provides a possible answer to the question why medical device KOLs might be a rare species: when asked to rank attributes that they consider important when making medical device purchase decisions, healthcare providers (HCP) ranked “key opinion leader recommendations” dead last with 62%. Consistent outcomes (94%), positive patient outcomes (93%) and durability (88%) took the top spots.

However, these findings leave us with a chicken and egg problem: do HCPs rely less on KOLs when buying medical devices because there are so few of them or are there so few of them because HCPs rely on other attributes to inform their purchase decisions?

One explanation for the lack of medical device KOLs could be that up until recently Medical Affairs departments have not been as ubiquitous in medical device companies as in pharmaceutical companies. Since medical affairs and especially medical science liaisons (MSLs) are in charge of developing and maintaining KOL relationships, fewer medical device MSLs could translate into fewer medical device KOLs and, consequently, KOL recommendations playing a less prominent role in HCP decision making.

A second factor might also play a role: while far from trivial, medical devices tend to need less explanation than drugs. After all, the science behind a stent or an artificial hip is relatively straight-forward when compared to the mechanism of action of the latest orphan drug or immunotherapy approach.

What Can KOLs Add to Medical Device Companies?‍

But just like with (most) drugs, HCPs have a choice when it comes to using medical devices and peer, or KOL, recommendations can play a role informing these decisions. Since consistent and positive patient outcomes ranked number one and two on the list of important criteria for HCPs when selecting a medical device, real world evidence that shows a device’s reliability and efficacy should be of great interest to HCPs.

A KOL with significant experience working with a medical device can provide meaningful real world evidence to their peers and can objectively advocate for a product that they have found to lead to better outcomes.

Working with KOLs to communicate unbiased and well-supported data about a devices reliability and efficacy to HCPs can therefore be an important part of a medical device company’s go to market strategy.

Rules of KOL Engagement‍

The rules of KOL engagement don’t differ much between pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Here is a summary overview of what you should do when looking to engage a KOL for your medical device company:

  • Identify a well-respected HCP that can speak from experience and with authority about your company’s and the competitors’ medical products.
  • Build and maintain a long-term collaborative peer-to-peer relationship based on trust and mutual respect
  • Provide the KOL with objective information, data, and insights
  • Develop an engagement plan that clearly communicates goals, expectations and remuneration for the KOL.
  • Involve your KOL actively in developing the engagement plan and give them the chance to shape it to meet their professional goals.
  • Develop non-sales related metrices to measure the impact your KOL has

KOLs can play an important role not just for pharmaceutical companies during drug development and launch but also for medical device companies. Data from a survey of HCPs suggest that consistent, positive patient outcomes is what matters most to HCPs and therefore an engagement plan that focuses on real-world evidence might be the way to go for medical device companies.

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