Opinion leader relationships have always been important in the world of life sciences. Opinion leaders lead by influencing the behavior of peers through their research, teaching, conference appearances, and other contributions to professional conversations. The rapid adoption of digital communication in the recent past has also led to the rise of the digital opinion leader.
Managing information from and for key opinion leaders and digital opinion leaders becomes more challenging when medical affairs teams must consider both real-world and digital avenues of influence — as well as how those two streams overlap.
A strong digital platform can help MA teams track opinion leaders’ efforts as they move between digital and real-world spheres.
The Pandemic Changed Communication With Opinion Leaders
Opinion leaders have played an important role in the life sciences for many years.
Opinion leaders are healthcare professionals “who speak at conferences, who write in journals, who lead clinical trials, who lead professional societies, who chair guidelines committees, who’ve earned the respect of their peers, whose words could change market perception of my brand on a large scale, for good or ill,” writes Gregory Imber, chief engagement officer for Healthcare Consultancy Group.
The rapid switch from in-person to online communications during the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted traditional methods of tracking and communicating with key opinion leaders (KOLs). In the digital realm, many KOLs continued their work, but a new category of opinion leaders arose as well.
Digital opinion leaders (DOLs) shape opinions in the life sciences by building and maintaining an online presence. A DOL “is an E-influencer who is a HCP or someone who influences public health, public health policies, and public health implementation,” Baris Ugur and Jorge Fragoso note in a webinar for the Medical Affairs Professional Society.
Tracking KOLs already posed challenges before the COVID-19 pandemic. Add digital opinion leaders to the mix, and the challenge becomes more daunting. Finding the right opinion leaders may become even more complex if a particular perspective is required, such as that of a frontline nurse or a patient with a particular diagnosis. Having the right tools is key.
But the right tools can be hard to find. Digital opinion leaders have opened up entirely new avenues of opinion and thought leadership. Tracking digital participation as well as more conventional avenues like conferences and journals requires medical affairs teams to deploy effective tools for searching, sorting, and analyzing opinion leadership both online and in the real world.
KOLs vs. DOLs: Who Do You Need When?
The sheer volume of information generated within healthcare and the life sciences makes it impossible for every professional in these fields to be an expert on every topic — or even on a small set of topics related to a particular research question.
Instead, healthcare providers turn to trusted KOLs to help them make sense of complex information and make quicker decisions.
KOLs typically come from academic institutions, top hospitals, government agencies, or other well-known institutions with established reputations. The ease of access afforded by the web, however, has allowed opinion leaders from non-traditional sources to enter the scene.
DOLs use digital tools to share research, news, and opinions on specific topics in healthcare and the life sciences. These opinion leaders can disseminate information quickly, often providing a broader reach than traditional KOLs.
“Historically new research could take 3-4 months or sometimes 1-2 years to reach publication,” Alok Sharan and fellow researchers write in the Journal of Orthopaedic Experience & Innovation.
“When a DOL sees an idea that could be helpful to the medical community they can immediately post that information online, reaching a broad international constituency that couldn’t be reached using the traditional analog framework.”
As regular users of social media know, the internet has enabled billions of people to share information and opinions quickly. It has also greatly boosted the noise-to-signal ratio on any given information channel.
“It is harder than one might think to find the best and the brightest among all of the loudest voices in the social media universe,” says Read Roberts, director of KOL data solutions at PRECISIONscientia.
The same metrics MA teams might use to identify KOLs don’t always work when tracking DOLs. For instance, a digital opinion leader may have a substantial reach online but have no track record of research authorship. Journal impact factors (JIFs) can’t spot DOLs who haven’t published research, even if those DOLs reach 10,000 healthcare decision makers each day through their blog, podcast, or Twitter feed.
Digital Tools for Building Opinion Leader Relationships
The pandemic’s social distancing demands blurred the line between in-person and real-world opinion leadership and digital efforts.
Today, even KOLs who rarely post online can be identified through online sources ranging from medical journals to conference websites to digitally compiled lists of citations or recommendations.
Using the right digital platform, then, can help medical affairs teams identify both KOLs and DOLs. These tools can also be used to track opinion leaders’ output, areas of expertise, and impact.
Tools like Anju’s TA Scan are purpose-built to meet these demands. TA Scan tracks traditional KOL metrics in a single platform. The platform provides automatic weekly updates, yet it also allows for extensive customization so MA teams can focus on the information that is most relevant to their current work.
The Opportunities and Risks of Digital Opinion Leadership
The rapid digital switch occasioned by the pandemic also poses certain risks.
Risks to patients and healthcare providers include “the distribution of poor-quality information, damage to professional image, breaches of patient privacy, violation of personal-professional boundaries, and licensing or legal issues,” C. Lee Ventola writes in Pharmacy & Therapeutics.
Many professional organizations offer policies and guidelines for social media use, but tracking this information can also be challenging without an effective digital tool to collect and sort it.
One way to address these challenges is to track knowledge and information more effectively. By collecting information in a single platform, clinical trial and MA teams can identify high-quality information and ensure they’re following the most current policies and regulations to protect patient privacy and data security.
By doing so, clinical trial teams and MA teams help build trust and organizational reputation. This allows them to position their own trial leaders and other team members to serve as KOLs within the healthcare and life sciences communities.
Navigating Digital Opinion Leadership in the Years to Come
Adoption of digital communication tools was well underway before the COVID-19 pandemic began. The pandemic, however, forced healthcare and life sciences professionals to adapt to new methods of communicating and sharing information in a digital environment.
Digital opinion leaders set trends and continue to shape approaches in this area. Platforms that track sources for traditional KOLs and DOLs alike can help medical affairs teams get a clearer picture of experts’ involvement on any topic.
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