During drug development, life science companies often turn to healthcare professionals (HCPs) for input, advice and expertise. These HCPs advising companies are generally known as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), thought leaders, or external experts, and their expertise is sought throughout the entire drug life cycle from early research to commercialization.
Here, we’ll explore why HCPs may want to become KOLs, and how they go about it.
Why Physicians Want to Become KOLs
There are many reasons why a healthcare provider may be interested in becoming an advisor to the pharmaceutical industry and -over time -be recognized as a key opinion leader. HCPs can derive benefits in multiple ways from their working relationships with the pharmaceutical industry such as:
- The ability to share their knowledge, e.g. by discussing novel treatment options or novel techniques with peers.
- The ability to learn by being at the cutting edge of new developments, new therapies and techniques. This allows HCPs to better treat their own patients.
- The chance to deeply engage with colleagues in discussions, learn from each other and build their professional network.
- To get a break from the daily routine, e.g. a busy practice and engage in an interesting project that adds expertise to their CV.
- HCPs receive fair compensation for their time spent advising companies which is time they cannot spend with their patients.
How to Become an Advisor and Key Opinion Leader
The answer to this question has shifted over the last decade driven by a number of factors, especially the ability of companies to use large databases and a data-driven approach to identify the best qualified physicians for a particular role and the emergence of social media as an important communication channel for healthcare providers.
HCPs become KOLs by acquiring skills, experience and expertise sought after by industry, specifically medical affairs but also clinical and commercial groups.
Traditionally, the most common way for an HCP to be noticed by potential industry partners was by recommendation. A mentor or colleague who already advised a company would suggest an HCP for an engagement based on their expertise and experience. From there, given successful engagements, the HCPs name spread by word-of-mouth and eventually they might make it onto the short-list of in-demand experts everybody knows.
However, today that is not enough. While becoming a KOL by recommendation is still fairly widely done today, the emergence of large searchable healthcare provider platforms with billions of data points about the global HCP community has changed that dynamic. These databases allow companies to search for professionals with defined expertise and experience, query for candidates with the best fit, filter them, e.g. by geography, and sort them by adjusting the weight of various criteria.
Content in these databases includes:
- Published research
- Conference speakers
- Clinical trial investigators and advisors
- Active involvement in medical societies and associations
- Social media posts and content
All of these things together have become the hallmarks of external experts. HCPs can improve their chances of being found by industry partners in these databases by conducting these activities and making sure their database profiles are complete and accurate.
Given the complexity of drug development and commercialization, there is not one perfect KOL profile for HCPs to cultivate, but different ones that require different combinations of expertise and experience, e.g.
- Scientific leaders, who are experts in a specific scientific area, e.g. Phase I or II, a specific type of science such as understanding pharmacokinetics or the mechanism of action of drugs, or who excel at a specific method or technique. Scientific experts have a clear research focus and a significant record of publications as well as a record of speaking engagements at conferences in that field.
- Clinical leaders, with significant experience overseeing and conducting clinical trials in their therapeutic area of expertise evidenced by the number and type of clinical trials they have been involved in and their role in these trials.
- Medical or treatment leaders, who have experience treating large numbers of patients with a specific disease, including those with comorbidities that might complicate diagnosis and/or treatment.
- Global thought-leaders, recognized as the superstars among the external experts who have an impressive track record of activities and achievements that earned them a thought-leader role in the medical community nationally or even globally.
In addition to these standard profiles, HCPs with an unusual combination of skills and experiences can be identified as experts. Previously the proverbial needle in the haystack and almost impossible to identify, HCPs with an unusual background or specialized expertise can now be quickly and easily found by searching for relevant keywords in a database.
Leveling the Playing Field for Aspiring KOLs
While being the mentee of a globally recognized expert can still be a short-cut to becoming a rising star expert, the ability of life sciences companies to simply search a global database of HCPs to identify the best candidates has had a profound impact on how KOLs are discovered.For HCPs aspiring to be KOLs, this drives a need to focus on activities that sharpen and elevate their profile so it catches the eye of industry partners.
This approach also levels the playing field, allowing HCPs everywhere to be found based on the strength of their profile, so they can apply their expertise to make additional important contributions in areas of medical and scientific interest to them. In the end, productive relationships between healthcare providers and pharmaceutical companies serve one overarching goal: benefit patients by addressing unmet medical needs.