Even in the best of times, the medical affairs team has a hefty workload.
During a pandemic, however, when professional interactions are mediated by digital connections and social distancing requirements, Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) face a significantly higher degree of difficulty. It’s harder to build and maintain crucial stakeholder relationships when personal bandwidth is maxed out, and outreach takes place online rather than in person.
Silver linings are emerging, though.
For one, it appears everyone in healthcare is learning to adapt to virtual environments. In March 2020, the Medical Science Liaison Society surveyed hundreds of MSLs from around the world on their ability to interact with key stakeholders during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Worldwide, nearly 55 percent of respondents said key opinion leaders and healthcare providers were "very or somewhat receptive" to meeting in virtual spaces.
Virtual networking will be a fact of life for as long as the pandemic lasts, and likely beyond. Below are three tips for MA teams that will help ensure their interactions with key stakeholders remain effective and meaningful.
Because COVID-19 has rendered planned visits and in-person interactions nearly impossible, ZS’s Sunil John writes, medical affairs needs to rethink how its teams are deployed. John suggests “strongly focusing on reactive inquiry management” as one option for redeployment.
“Medical information call centers are experiencing heavy workloads in the form [of] on-label, off-label and access-based queries,” he writes. “Companies should take a number of key actions to ensure that medical information personnel are fully prepared to respond quickly and effectively.”
Jennifer Turcotte, on the pharmaceutical and medical device go-to-market team at Salesforce, noted in May 2020 how many pharmaceutical companies had scrambled to set up call centers to handle new inbound volumes of inquiries.
But shifting to a more reactive model of interaction requires more than call centers. As John writes, pharmaceutical companies need to ensure everyone responding to queries has access to all of the information they need. This means providing materials and resources to the people answering the phones as well as publishing FAQs and other self-directed support resources on the company’s website. In both instances, medical affairs will be crucial in collecting and making available that information.
Furthermore, MSLs understand that stakeholder engagement applies to a wide range of people, from the KOLs and care providers mentioned above to regulators and patient advocates. Amgen VP of Global Medical Affairs Sebastian Sorsaburu describes this as an ecosystem of stakeholders.
Charlotte Kremer, EVP and head of MA at Astellas Pharma, notes that external stakeholders might have access to the same data you do, “so working with them to generate data through collaborative research or big data analysis is key to the success of pharma and MA.”
Likewise, these stakeholders might have precise, targeted questions. They’re looking for context and explanation in their inquiries.
“They want to go beyond data discussions to talk about value across all paradigms, so the societal impact, as well as cost and traditional measurements of value,” Amgen Director Head of EU Medical Strategy and Operations Emma Booth tells Reuters Events Pharma. “They also want to be able to reach you when they want information, so the way we make ourselves available also needs to change.”
Conferences and seminars have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic. Many event organizers have moved their events online, and the result so far has been a mixed bag.
As the team at tranScrip in the UK notes, streaming events aren’t constrained by venue capacity, and many 2020 digital events have seen higher turnouts than their in-person 2019 events. That said, because people aren’t blocking out whole days to attend these events, audiences tend to “drop in and out,” they write.
In a piece for PharmaPhorum, Airfinity cofounder and CEO Rasmus Bech Hansen notes how conversations during streamed sessions in 2020 have seen upticks in engagement. Specifically, engagements per sessions and per tweet were higher during these events than they were in 2019.
“Our data also shows that a few high-profile KOLs were very active and drove lots of traffic to science they highlighted,” he writes. “Other channels such as Youtube, LinkedIn and Sermo, the social network for doctors, were also used, but nowhere near as much as Twitter.”
Hansen concedes that there are difficulties in having such conversations on social media, particularly as regulations constrain what can and cannot be said. “However, when the scientific conversation is happening online it’s entirely legitimate, in fact important, to be active virtually.”
For medical affairs, this means that the in-person network that normally takes place at conferences, congresses and other events must now take place on social media — Twitter especially.
“Scientific exchange happens on social media whether you participate or not,” the team at Monocl writes. “Not participating, therefore, is no longer an option, it would mean ceding the field and leaving it to others to inform the discussion about topics that are important to the success of your products.”
Their advice to MSLs networking on Twitter:
Millions of people — those in life sciences and elsewhere — are currently adapting to new ways of working. There’s a learning curve for everyone.
For medical affairs, this creates an opportunity to present steady reliability, the Medical Affairs Professional Society underscored in its COVID-19 Global Town Hall. In practice, this means:
In other words, approach all interactions with the understanding that everyone is trying their best under difficult circumstances. Do what you can to anticipate hiccups, and this will demonstrate confidence and composure. People tend to remember those qualities.
Remember, too, that preparation means having the right data available to speak to any stakeholder’s questions. It also means understanding what the HCP or patient advocate you’re talking to is dealing with on the ground.
“Having the real-world data to know how the pandemic has impacted a clinician before a digital encounter is the key to efficient use of everyone’s time,” Komodo Health cofounder and President Web Sun writes. “Having a clear line of sight into what healthcare providers are experiencing right now is an important part of setting up a constructive conversation.”