The job of an MSL is not for the faint of heart: an exciting job for scientists or medical doctors, being an MSL is not without a set of challenges. Some of these come with being field-based and are shared with other professionals, such as the commercial field teams, and some are specific for the role of a medical science liaison which finds itself right in that intersection between medical, R&D and commercial.
What are those challenges and how should organizations as a whole and MSLs as individuals respond to them?
Where Does Medical End and Commercial Begin?
The issue of not crossing into commercial territory has two distinct parts to it. First, the MSLs themselves as well as their field-based commercial colleagues need to be trained on where that elusive line between medical and commercial runs and be mindful of not crossing it.
Secondly, the healthcare providers (HCPs) and key opinion leaders (KOLs) the medical science liaisons interact with on a daily basis need to understand and respect that line. Since the separation of roles, the do’s and don’ts of answering specific questions, e.g. about off-label use of drugs, are not intuitive, confusion on the part of some medical professionals about the type of information an MSL can provide can persist.
It falls mainly on the field-based teams, both medical and commercial, to address these areas of confusion and educate the HCPs about what type of information members of the different field-based teams can and cannot share.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
This challenge is common to many professionals working in the field or remotely: not being in the office every day or at least most days, not being part of meetings or if so, only being the disembodied voice on the phone, makes it hard to stay abreast of everything that is going on at headquarters. Being in the field might mean that MSLs miss out on important information, such as that new clinical trial that was just initiated. It also means that they aren’t part of the informal but important exchange of information that happens, e.g. impromptu meetings in the hallway or over coffee.
MSLs and other field-based or remotely working employees have to be keenly aware of the risk of being – often inadvertently – left out of the information loop. Establishing solid relationships and communication channels within the company can help to stay up to date. The organization as a whole has to be tasked with developing processes and procedures that make it unlikely that important information falls through the cracks.
Living the Life of a Road Warrior
This challenge, too, is not exclusive to MSLs but certainly an issue that affects them: the nature of their work makes MSLs prime candidates for frequent flier status at numerous airlines, holders of copious amounts of hotel points and people who spend a lot of quality time in their cars. Such a lifestyle, on the face of it, can sound alluring, but the reality of it is rather less enchanting and often very exhausting. The larger the territory of a MSL, the more of a road warrior they tend to become.
Modern technologies can help mitigate this issue somewhat. Better technologies for virtual meetings and communication, for example, can cut down on travel. Self-driving cars have the potential to turn the drudge of braving traffic in an unknown city or long hauls overland into time an MSL can use productively.
Until more of that travel can be avoided altogether, MSLs will likely continue their life as road warriors with the option – but often not the desire to – travel extensively during their spare time with all the frequent traveller perks they amassed.
Too Much Information, Too Little Time
Novel drugs with complex mechanisms of action, orphan drugs and biologics, personalized medicine and increasing amounts of real-world data are just a few of the trends that require today’s MSLs to keep learning at ever increasing speed.
The amount of new data and information becoming available is mind-boggling, further accelerating and by now beyond an individual’s ability to take it all in. To cope with the flood of information, MSLs will require ongoing training and modern tools that help them structure and organize these data.
In addition to making sense of all that information themselves, MSLs main role is to educate and inform KOLs and HCPs in general. Again, modern technologies such as annotatable presentations that can easily be custom-tailored from flexible content modules to suit each KOLs style, can help MSLs with conveying the complex science they are dealing with.
Being in (Too Much) Demand
As highly trained professionals MSLs have a wealth of knowledge that can be useful in a variety of roles within a company: health economic outcome research: an MSLs input would be invaluable! Interacting with patient advocacy groups: an MSL can do that. Working with the clinical team on that trial that isn’t going as well as hoped: the MSL’s help would be great.
While all of that is true, MSLs are valuable sources of information in all of these situations and more, this is not their main role and distractions like that can mean that the MSL has not enough time to focus on their core activities.
Clearly defining the responsibilities and objectives of MSLs’ and internally communicating those is an important step companies can take to avoid their MSLs being pulled in too many different directions.
Pharmaceutical companies need to mindful of the challenges their medical field-based teams of MSLs are facing every day. Both the challenges unique to MSLs, as well as those they share with other field-based and remote colleagues can be taxing and detrimental to an MSL achieving their goals. Communication, cooperation and careful planning are needed to allow MSLs to excel in their jobs.