The Emerging Role of Medical Science Liaisons on Medical Affairs Teams

One of the most exciting aspects of medical affairs is how the role keeps evolving. New specialists are emerging in their fields and changing how teams engage with key opinion leaders.

In the past few years, the number of medical science liaisons (MSLs) has increased. More teams are turning to MSLs to effectively facilitate communication between physicians and pharmaceutical companies.

“The MSL has a key role in developing and delivering scientific communications to health professionals and other stakeholders that is factually accurate and compliant with industry standards,” write Paul Theron and fellow researchers in a 2021 article in Therapeutic Innovation & Regulatory Science.

Let’s dig deeper into the role and responsibilities of MSLs and how they continue to grow.

Who Are Medical Science Liaisons?

The number of medical science liaisons continues to increase as these professionals prove their worth. Bringing on MSLs can give pharmaceutical companies an edge when it comes to discussing their new treatments and disseminating information about products.

“The number of MSL roles are on the rise,” writes Martijn Bijker, founder of online MSL training company From Science to Pharma. “The reason for this increase in MSL numbers is the fact that more drugs are coming to the market, more drugs target niche markets, and pharma companies want to engage physicians earlier in the drug development process, increasing the demand for MSLs.”

So who are medical science liaisons? According to an infographic created by The Bowdoin Group, an executive search firm, 75 percent of medical science liaisons have a PharmD or a Ph.D. An experienced medical science liaison in the oncology, hematology or rare disease spaces, for instance, can earn more than $200,000 annually, and the field is made up of more women than men, with 62 percent of MSLs identifying as female.

Theron et al. identify three key responsibilities for MSLs:

  • Scientific exchange of unbiased medical information, especially while building relationships with opinion leaders.
  • Evidence generation in the form of sponsored studies, clinical trials and clinical audits. An understanding of good clinical practice and protocols provides a necessary foundation for MSLs’ contributions in this area.
  • Gathering insights through their connections with every participant in the clinical trial process, from sponsors and key opinion leaders to individual patients.

Most people associate MSLs only as a bridge between pharmaceutical companies and physicians; however, their discussions with key opinion leaders (KOLs) have far-reaching implications, even down to individual patients who have more treatment opportunities because of these conversations.

“MSLs have the ability to impact patient lives – mostly indirectly, but certainly on a macro scale,” the team at the Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs explains. “The information the MSL provides can influence how a healthcare provider (HCP) uses a product or device. MSLs who are truly vested in patient care will bring back important insights to drive data generation strategies for their companies to address unmet needs.”

Medical Science Liaisons Need Soft Skills

In addition to medical backgrounds and high education levels, MSLs need soft skills to form a network of professional connections.

“While it is important to have a strong scientific background to be able to present data, this can largely be taught,” says Christy Cheung, digital innovation and transformation lead at Sanofi. “The soft skills, on the other hand, are much harder to coach. From my experience so far and in speaking with my mentors too, I would argue that the soft skills are even more important.”

MSLs aren’t hired to live in the world of academia or research where they can stay in the lab all day. These professionals need to advocate for their employers and effectively communicate the details of new therapies and treatments.

“Pharmaceutical companies hire MSLs due to their strong scientific background and MSLs need to be able to disseminate and communicate scientific data in a confident and clear manner,” writes Aoife Dwyer, founder of MSL Consultant, a coaching and online training resource. “A confusing presentation or convoluted explanation of clinical trial results will damage the MSL’s reputation as a therapeutic expert. Clarity is king when it comes to data dissemination.”

Over the past few years, the need for MSLs with quality soft skills has become even more important. Skills like flexibility, adaptability and a desire to learn go a long way when the world is just emerging from lockdown.

“In COVID times, not only are these the skills that help us get us through the long days of lock-down, they are a requirement if MSLs wish to excel and continue to bring value to their customers,” says Darina Frieder, medical science liaison at global biopharmaceutical company UCB. “In contrast to mastering a new disease state or treatment, which MSLs are practically hard-wired to do, soft skills are much tougher to learn. Perhaps we should call them out for what they are – tough skills.”

In addition to soft skills, MSLs benefit from strong data analysis skills. Access to data is a must for MSLs: Data provides insights into the worlds of healthcare providers, opinion leaders, patients and other participants in the clinical trial process. MSLs then use their soft skills to put those insights into practice.

A successful MSL will set themselves apart by highlighting their soft skills — primarily, their ability to take complex information and share it effectively with people who are usually extremely pressed for time. A focus on data analysis can also help MSLs succeed in a rapidly-changing role and field.

How Were Medical Science Liaisons Affected By COVID-19?

At the outset of the pandemic, the MSL role was paused because liaisons couldn’t engage with KOLs in a traditional manner. Conferences shifted online and meetings moved to video chat, while many new trials, aside from vaccine research, were delayed.

Medical science liaisons have worked within these limitations, with one imperative being to ensure meetings with healthcare professionals and KOLs were “pertinent, meaty, and brief (or more concise than they used to be),” writes Susan Malecha, senior director of medical affairs at Puma Biotechnology.

“Situations create opportunities,” she explains. “This ‘situation’ is the opportunity for the MSL to position yourself as the most relevant, most knowledgeable, and most valued source of scientific and healthcare information.”

MSLs are valuable to companies because they create a two-way street between firms. They disseminate information from their employers and bring feedback and thoughts from KOLs.

Although engagements with healthcare providers are generally returning to in-person formats as the pandemic wanes, many MSLs may continue to engage virtually in the future.

“The number of sales rep interactions with HCPs across any channel is now increasing throughout all major global markets – with levels predicted to rebound to near pre-COVID levels over the next year,” the team at Ashfield Engage writes in a whitepaper. “While the signs are good for the frequency of interactions to return, it will be critical…for pharma companies to successfully navigate the new landscape and deliver positive customer experiences.”


What Do Medical Science Liaisons Need?

While MSLs are certainly an asset to your medical affairs team, they also have needs of their own. These team members need the right tools to communicate effectively and to grow within your organization.

“When speaking with MSL job seekers, we see a clear pattern that the overwhelming majority want job stability, strong leadership in a positive environment, and the chance to improve their career,” says Tom Caravela, managing partner at The Carolan Group, an executive search and recruitment firm. “Since MSLs are field-based and work more independently than corporate office employees, it is even more important to focus on consistent engagement, communication, direction and recognition, in order to ensure that they feel the right level of support and respect.”

Training, in particular, is an important part of MSL management. Medical science liaisons are the face of your organization. You need them to have all of the information so they can present it accurately.

“Onboarding is critical to building a best-in-class MSL function,” says Helen Kane, CEO at training consultancy One MSL. “MSLs require a huge amount of information and data to be able to do their job properly. I believe there needs to be consistent standards for MSL employment, training, onboarding and management.”

When MSLs are supported and serve as a valued part of medical affairs teams, they promote the research and products of their employers, while also moving science forward as a whole.

“Science is advancing every day, and field-based medical teams have the opportunity to make an impact in delivering better healthcare and improving patients’ lives,” says Jennifer Vernazza, director of global medical operations at Apellis Pharmaceuticals. “Realizing this vision means taking a look at how we approach our partnership with healthcare, adapting and growing with the evolution of our industry.”

Images by: Hongqi Zhang/©, Jozef Polc/©, LinkedIn Sales Solutions, LinkedIn Sales Solutions

Updated 7/18/22

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