Medical Affairs Leadership

Building a Strong Foundation for Medical Affairs Leadership

Medical affairs teams were already in a challenging position before the COVID-19 pandemic. Serving a growing number of stakeholders and co-leading products is a role that has only gained importance in the past years.


The pandemic has made stakeholder engagement more difficult, but the need for MA’s co-leadership remains.

With the right digital tools, medical affairs can continue to build the connections needed for pharmaceutical products to succeed in a post-pandemic world.

But having the right tools isn’t enough. What’s needed is a new paradigm that puts medical affairs front and center.

‘Medical Affairs Needs to Assert Itself’

Sure, the pandemic has shut down some industry events and made some stakeholders harder to reach. But these are obstacles that can be overcome.

After all, the end-of-year conference calendar features a mix of in-person and virtual events, and we’ve already outlined how MA teams can build and maintain professional relationships remotely.

Companies that embrace virtual network-building now and give their MA teams the tools they need will set themselves up for a post-pandemic world. Otherwise — as Robert Dumitrescu, Dr. Marc Matar, Dr. Rainer Opgen-Rhein and Dr. Sam Calderwood at Simon-Kucher & Partners point out — companies could see any momentum stall on the MA, marketing and sales fronts, which would undercut any product launches when the market settles into its new, post-pandemic normal.

MA, marketing and sales must build momentum now to avoid perceived failures later.

To that end, “Medical Affairs needs to assert itself as a strategic co-leader of any pharmaceutical product,” Bedrock Group CEO David Youds writes at PMLive.

“There are too many examples of sub-optimal collaboration between commercial and medical departments, often blamed on compliance and the need for ‘firewalls’. While an element of this argument holds true, with the right mindset in place and an early start on strategic alignment across internal functions, many of these barriers can be overcome. The value of this collaborative approach for health systems, and ultimately patients, is huge.”

Youds is right to highlight the value of internal collaboration, but external collaboration comprises the other half of this framework. Empowering MA teams to lead internally and externally will create the right momentum.


External Stakeholders: New Needs Drive Collaboration

For the foreseeable future, it could be harder for medical science liaisons to build new connections with key opinion leaders, healthcare professionals and other external stakeholders.

With so much relationship building happening in a virtual environment, it’s easy for these people to ignore requests to connect, the team at Arx Research writes. Further, these people might need some training themselves on how to collaborate remotely.

“While the world is reopening cautiously, many events will be conducted through online channels, where personal approaches will almost be non-existent,” the Arx Research team says. “This will impede new relationship development. It will then be imperative for MSLs to maintain and nurture existing relationships to minimize erosion of their KOL ‘call’ list.”

At the same time, the very definition of stakeholders is expanding to include organizations like patient groups. “Stakeholders’ needs and desires have also evolved,” Amgen Head of EU Medical Capabilities Emma Booth says.

“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. They also want to be able to reach you when they want information, so the way we make ourselves available also needs to change.”

Empowering medical affairs means responding to that change.

There’s plenty of reason to believe MA and pharmaceutical companies can embrace that need for responsiveness. After all, the COVID-19 response itself has brought the medical community together in an unprecedented way. Myriam Mendila, chief medical officer and global head of medical affairs at Novartis Oncology, saw how this happened in cancer research.

“We were all united working together,” Mendila says. “We needed to do something to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and so we found ways to share information, get back to each other and solve problems in record time. The collaboration was phenomenal and I really hope we can keep this spirit for the future.”

Internal Stakeholders: Get Everyone Aligned

As external stakeholder management evolves, so does internal stakeholder management. That’s why MA is positioned to co-lead rather than unilaterally take the lead.

An important step toward this model of co-leadership is for medical affairs and marketing to reframe their relationship. As RemedyBio Chief Medical Officer Colm Galligan tells Pharmafield, this relational frame has at times been seen as antagonistic.

“You need to have trust and confidence in what the other person is trying to achieve,” Colm says. “… Some companies do manage it, but it’s like a secret sauce, it’s not easy to replicate – but that doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t try.”

The same goes for commercial teams in general and medical affairs. A July 2020 report by TGaS Advisors found that just over half (53 percent) of medical affairs leaders reported “an overall strong to very strong working relationships” with their commercial colleagues. Meanwhile, only 39 percent of the commercial teams’ leaders said they felt the same.

That’s a fence that needs mending, and medical affairs has the skills to start those conversations and the tools to bring teams closer together.


The Technologies That Facilitate This Collaboration

A wealth of digital tools are available to help MA teams strengthen their internal and external stakeholder relationships.

On the external side, tools that help you navigate the stakeholder landscape are especially useful. These include everything from simple social media-monitoring tools to influence-mapping software, which offers a more meta perspective of how networks of influence operate.

Deborah Ebert Long, SVP of medical affairs at Vertex Pharmaceutical, cites both as being crucial for navigating virtual conferences. Before and during the conference, MA teams can monitor social media to see what topics are resonating with the audiences, and to see what influencers are leading conversations.

“Attending from home or the office means not having access to social cues in live settings, but social media can be a rich source of insight into how the medical community is reacting to the presented information,” Long writes. ‘As always, be sure you continue to follow your company’s policies on social media engagement.”

The ability to map networks has applications beyond events networking. Aswin Chandrakantan, chief medical officer at Komodo Health, writes in Applied Clinical Trials how his company helped Karyopharm Therapeutics invert its patient recruitment by tapping into data on diagnosis codes, medical records and socioeconomic factors — the kind of healthcare-experience data Komodo tracks on more than 320 million people.

“Armed with this level of patient-level detail, Komodo Health was able to identify trends in COVID-19 diagnoses and related symptoms, including pneumonia, bronchitis, and other variants between January 2019 and March 31 of this year to pinpoint the largest populations of at-risk patients,” Chandrakantan writes.

“Based on this data, Karyopharm was able to shortlist 500 key providers including internal medicine, pulmonary disease, virologists and infectious disease providers alongside the top 100 healthcare organizations based on the affiliations of these providers.”

By being able to visualize stakeholders and patients at a macro level, medical affairs can paint a picture that helps everyone from their company’s own commercial teams to HCPs around the country do their jobs better.

These are the kinds of digital insights needed to tighten stakeholder relationships during and after a pandemic.

Remember: Everyone Has the Same Fundamental Goal

Though different stakeholder groups have their own discrete needs, at that macro level everyone’s job is the same: Getting the best treatments available to the patients who need them.

Building relationships with that north star in mind will certainly help, especially in the wake of a global pandemic. COVID-19, and the search for a vaccine, has certainly demonstrated how everyone is in this together.

“Companies developing vaccines don’t see each other as competitors,” says Mark Wildgust, vice president of global medical affairs of oncology at Janssen. “[W]e all see each other as members of the same team with one enemy and that is COVID-19. We all have the same goal and we are all cheering each other along to defeat the virus.”

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