It is critical for medical science liaisons (MSLs) and medical affairs teams to build lasting relationships with key opinion leaders (KOLs). And in our increasingly digital-focused healthcare world, regional and local influencers matter just as much as traditional KOLs. These relationships have a direct impact on the success of clinical trials, bringing treatments to market, and reaching broader and more diverse patient populations.
Yet recent industry data shows that MSLs are struggling to identify and access KOLs. Complicating this struggle? MSLs rarely get access to new lists of KOLs – these are usually passed down over time across the organization or include only KOLs at large academic medical centers.
But, as they say, you don’t know who you don’t know … right? In this case, wrong.
Whenever we bring up the topic of the importance of “new” KOLs, we’re often asked the same questions: Who are they? Why are they important? How and where do I find them? And how can I build meaningful relationships with them?
Let’s answer some of these frequently asked questions that MSLs have when it comes to identifying and engaging with undiscovered KOLs.
FAQ: What is the difference between a treatment leader, KOL and DOL?
Answer: Let’s break down all the different types of KOLs. Traditional KOLs are established doctors or doctors well known in their fields. They regularly publish articles, attend and speak at conferences, and serve on numerous advisory boards. They are very public and often cited.
Digital opinion leaders (DOLs) can be anyone from healthcare professionals to patient advocates or researchers who have an influential digital voice in the community. DOLs want to educate, engage and challenge their followers in the name of science – while positioning themselves as experts. They are skilled in digital communication and build experience and credibility to back up their pitches. Research shows that discovering digital opinion leaders (DOLs) is even more difficult than finding traditional KOLs, with 66% of MSLs sharing this frustration.
The challenges often lie in finding new and different KOLs who, on the other hand, are thought leaders (digital or otherwise) but who are on the rise or simply not as well known as the older KOLs – they are obviously talented but they haven’t had the chance to prove themselves yet. They may publish, but they haven’t developed a body of work over decades that sets them apart as a KOL or DOL like their more famous counterparts. Or maybe they’re early in their career or the “shy type” who isn’t vocal and has flown under the radar.
All these opinion leaders are like pieces of a puzzle – together they bring more value and a fresh perspective than when they are alone.
FAQ: Why is it important to update outdated KOL lists?
Answer: Medical affairs teams typically target traditional KOLs who are already well-known in their fields. But these experts don’t always reflect the demographics of real patients or doctors. This lack of representation can extend into everything from clinical trials to treatment distribution, contributing to continuing health care inequities.
The greatest value in uncovering these thought leaders of tomorrow is in their diversity of thought. They have the potential to be the next big influencers, raising awareness of clinical trials and truly influencing the future of healthcare for the better.
FAQ: Is one type of KOL more valuable than another?
Answer: There are several types of KOLs that MSLs can focus on. The first is what we call “rising stars.” These opinion leaders are the next heads of departments and presidents of medical societies. By building relationships with these so-called junior KOLs early on, you’ll establish that relationship as they become more well-known, and they’ll be more responsive to your requests. The funny truth is that most “rising stars” are not as young as you think. With medical school, residency, fellowship, and sometimes postdoctoral positions, these “junior” KOLs are typically 15 years out of medical school on average.
Another will be doctors, researchers or other professionals who represent different groups of patients. Creating connections with these types of experts will help increase the availability of trials for underserved populations and gain a better understanding of how well a drug can help patients affected by the disease.
Finally, there is a type we call uncut gems (general expert and significant stars). These are doctors who are not (yet) KOLs but have significant experience in a given therapeutic area with an established academic and clinical career. They can bring fresh ideas and diverse thinking to the table, but still need the opportunity to break through and have their research recognized.
FAQ: How can I find these KOLs?
Answer: It can be difficult to track and understand the digital or social media activities of new KOLs. MSLs must change the way they do their due diligence to find thought leaders and digital influencers, or these KOLs will be missed.
We think this simple five-step exercise is a great place to start:
- Take a two-week look back at a multi-vendor social channel to see who even has a social media presence.
- Pick three to five who have social media profiles and spend some time analyzing them to get an idea of their activity and level of influence.
- Create a grid or spreadsheet with doctors’ names and these parameters: how many people they’re connected to, who they’re following, who they’re being followed by (gives insight into reach), how many times they’ve shared content, how many times they’ve engaged with content via a reaction like a lift of thumb or like etc.
- Fill in the grid and look for patterns that may appear. Are they “social scientists” who often respond and engage? Are they “quiet scientists” who don’t engage much? Or are they “somewhat prominent” and engage only occasionally? This will give you an idea of how to approach them.
- Look ahead to your organization’s initiatives for the next 6-12 months and consider how your new understanding of these DOLs can change your strategies. Is it possible to contact them usefully? Will they add variety to your experience landscape?
It’s a great time to look at who they’re networked with and how often they’re cited by other experts, and a data-driven network can help filter that out. MSLs can use technology to help, and there are AI-driven platforms that keep KOL profiles up-to-date, including social content. These tools can provide insight into these emerging experts and their spheres of influence, rank experts, monitor social conversations, and help personalize communications.
FAQ: Ok, I’ve identified some new KOLs. Now what?
Answer: How MSLs engage with KOLs is evolving as we emerge from the pandemic. New research shows that nearly 38% of MSLs say the move to virtual meetings with KOLs has had a negative impact on their work, and 70% of MSLs would prefer to return to in-person meetings in a post-Covid world.
During the height of the pandemic, MSLs and medical affairs had to get creative in how they connected with KOLs. Gone are the days of face-to-face meetings and relationship building has gone digital. But now the pendulum is swinging back and personal commitments are trending again.
Recent data tells us that both MSLs and KOLs prefer in-person interactions. But regardless of how you connect with these emerging KOLs, personalization will be key. Given that the majority of meetings between MSLs and KOLs last less than 30 minutes, it’s important to make an impact. If you can gather information about what KOLs are discussing and where, and use that insight to tailor the conversation, you can make the most of your limited time.
Photo: oatawa, Getty Images