Are MSLs ready for the spotlight? - European Medical Journal

Are MSLs ready for the spotlight?

4 Mins
Some say medical science liaison teams could become more influential than sales teams in the future. How can pharmaceutical companies prepare their MSLs for the spotlight by equipping them with the ability to be both engaging storytellers and expert communicators of science? 
Words by Isabel O’Brien

In the frenzied heights of the pandemic, the need to maintain a level of calm was nearly as important as containing the virus itself. Even those with the steeliest of dispositions were rattled by worldwide lockdowns and daily exercise allowances, and it wasn’t long before governments called for backup. Leading epidemiologists were plucked from their labs and plonked in front of television cameras to quell public fears, despite the fact that rousing speech making is rarely bulleted in the epidemiologist job description. 

“They had to take this quite dry, complex material and make it a little more compelling without, of course, wavering from the scientific truths,” says Marcus West, Founder and CEO, 60 Seconds, at the NEXT Pharma Summit. The situation revealed that sometimes it is not enough to know the science, but one needs to be able to expertly communicate it, too.  

This skill is no more understood than by the pharmaceutical industry’s Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs), who are tasked with communicating complex insights and medical information to healthcare professionals to support their clinical decision-making. But, much like the epidemiologists who were thrust into the public arena during the pandemic, many arrive in the role from scientific and medical backgrounds, so could benefit from coaching and innovative tools to truly nail their interactions. 

The bad end of the deal  

Historically, commercial and medical field teams have received very different levels of support ahead of their conversations with customers. No politician would be allowed to face the masses without a gruelling stretch of media training. A similar degree of preparation is usually afforded to salespeople. “There are so many wonderful training programmes, but the sales reps get a much better experience,” says Michelle Bridenbaker, Global Medical Information, Global Head, Idorsia, also speaking at the NEXT Pharma Summit. “MSLs on the other hand – we’re given slide decks, we’re given manuscripts and we’re sent on our way.” 

We’re given slide decks, we’re given manuscripts and we’re sent on our way 

Despite both roles being customer facing, it is often only sales reps who are given the most engaging resources and ‘soft skills’ training to aid their interactions with healthcare professionals. This will be a growing issue for the industry as therapies become more advanced, and HCPs increasingly want to meet medical reps over their commercial counterparts. “In areas such as ultra-speciality rare diseases, the role of the commercial rep may reduce significantly going forward,” confirms Viraj Rajadhyaksha, Area Medical Director, AstraZeneca. Speaking at Reuters Events: Customer Engagement Europe 2022, he adds that medical roles will increase in response to shrinking sales forces in these therapy areas, and it is possible this trend will be observed across the board as well.  

Slide decks are dead  

The much-lampooned graphs presented by the UK’s chief scientists during the pandemic are testament to the fact that even in matters of life and death, the format in which important information presented is critical. While HCPs have an invested interest in learning about the intricacies of new therapies, the likelihood of adoption versus inertia can rest on how data is presented and refined. “We’ve heard the expression of salespeople of ‘turn up and throw up’, and I believe the equivalent in the MSL space is the ‘data dump’,” says West.  

Since the pandemic, there has been a growth in expectations from HCPs for how content should be structured and delivered. “In the past two years, we’ve all learned to learn in a different way. Every single one of us has become podcast consumers, we use YouTube, we use many different modes of learning,” explains Bridenbaker. For example, a recent infographic by IQVIA found that 43% of HCPs surveyed identified thought leadership podcasts as a timely and relevant way to consume health information. This proves that MSLs must be digitally upskilled to present their insights through more immersive mediums. 

While MSLs are not expected to become masters of the airwaves, being able to work with resources such as interactive infographics could help hit doctors’ rising key criteria for educational content. A recent blog post by Veeva Systems, identifies these as having high levels of relevance, being easily digestible and a focus on quality over quantity. If companies can curate and reframe their materials, not only will MSLs have shinier tools to work with, and be able to achieve better outcomes from their interactions, but they will be upgrading their own digital toolkits in turn. “Why not have MSLs trained on these materials? They can use these to learn themselves,” says Bridenbaker.  

The importance of soft skills  

It’s not just about ditching drab presentations, but training in how to present and perform could become a key marker of successful MSLs in the future. “Whenever we meet with friends or family, we always talk in stories; we share things that happened – our experiences. And then we get into the work context and suddenly it becomes dry dot points,” says West. The power of storytelling in medical education could take various forms but constructing a narrative around why a new therapy could be beneficial to patients, rather than purely regurgitating the clinical outcomes data, could become a stringent differentiator. 

Sometimes it is not enough to know the science, but one needs to be able to expertly communicate it, too 

Another aspect to consider, especially as virtual meetings switch to being in person, is MSLs refining their non-verbal cues in their conversations with HCPs. “Body language is enormously powerful,” asserts West. “Some people say that body language is up to 70% of how we perceive an individual to be.” As was seen during the pandemic, a life in the lab doesn’t necessarily prepare individuals to be compelling presenters, meaning that companies investing in role-playing sessions could help MSLs to acquire the confidence and ease held by their commercial colleagues.  

Ultimately, MSLs are the key insight gatherers and disseminators of pharma organisations, and the more effectively they can present the information, the more likely clinical decision-making will be impacted. In addition, the more engaged an HCP is, the more insights they are likely to offer, so MSLs will be able to extract progressively valuable nuggets that companies can then use to shape their commercial strategies. “MSLs are great at science, but we do not prepare them like we do our sales reps for these critical ways that they can actually connect with our customers so they can walk away with really good insights and give the customer what they need,” affirms Bridenbaker.  

MSLs are lined up to be more prominent figures in pharma’s future, so companies must ensure these professionals are equipped for the task rather than being thrust into the proverbial lion’s den with only their knowledge and wits to rely on. 

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