Over the last decade, pharmaceutical sales has shifted from direct sales to individual doctors into a game of influencing a network of payers and providers. The regulatory environment also has changed, with federal as well as state agencies — in addition to industry associations such as PhRMA — setting new limitations on how pharma companies can interact with customers. This has made reaching key end customers more difficult for pharma companies.
Pharma’s new MVP: the MSL
To meet the challenges of this new environment, pharma companies have bolstered their Medical Affairs teams, which are responsible for educating physicians about new therapies and collecting insights from the market that can inform product strategy and clinical trial design. On the front lines are the Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) who serve as the customer-facing product experts. They must articulate deep disease knowledge, connect the clinical results to expected outcomes, and demonstrate product value to providers.
MSLs have become trusted advisors for doctors, who prefer to engage with them over sales reps. According to ZS Associates, MSLs get 30 to 45 minutes of face time with providers, while sellers only get a handful of minutes. This is a trend that is only expected to continue; the younger generation of doctors is fully dispensing with sellers in favor of MSLs, who they “text” whenever they have a question about a particular drug.
The rise of the Key Opinion Leader
While MSLs benefit from their trusted position with doctors, they also face a more complex landscape than sales reps did before them. Physicians increasingly are employees of integrated delivery networks (IDNs), rather than individual practice owners, meaning they have less say over the drugs that are chosen to prescribe. On top of this, payers are jockeying with hospital systems for control over purchasing decisions. In aggregate, this has the effect of making the drug sales market a complex web over which pharma companies must exert influence.
One promising development, in the eyes of MSLs, is the emergence of thought leaders known as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), who payers and providers turn to for guidance. The goal for MSLs is to identify and establish relationships with these KOLs, and then use these relationships to deliver therapeutically focused communication and medical education programs.
However, identifying these individuals and their affiliations with important stakeholders such as group practices, hospitals, clinics, hospital networks, IDNs, and group purchasing organizations has been no easy feat.
Mapping relationships to increase sales
To date, all this work has been done ad hoc. MSLs don’t have a single tool to identify and keep track of KOLs and instead use Excel spreadsheets, MDM solutions, CRM platforms, and others. It is very easy to miss an important expert who an MSL should contact or not discover insight that should guide an engagement strategy.
MSLs need a comprehensive understanding of the KOL landscape and a single tool where they can get it. They need to be able to instantly see and understand the connections across various interrelated endpoints — medical journal articles, speaking engagements, healthcare provider payments, clinical studies, patents, grants, and more — to know which KOLs to engage. With a clear map of influence networks, segmented by disease expertise, experience, region, and more, Medical Affairs teams can answer questions such as:
- Which MSL should be working with healthcare providers in this region?
- Which expert should I engage with on this specific drug therapy and in this particular region?
- Who is influencing providers on this specific social media channel?
- In which region is demand for this drug therapy highest, and who is our target customer based on this particular gene mutation?
A knowledge graph for Medical Affairs
Knowledge graphs are particularly well suited to the challenges that Medical Affairs teams face. Knowledge graphs take real-world relationships and affiliations and make them machine-understandable. Knowledge graphs’ RDF data model allows them to not just store data but map the relationships that exist between various data points.
Stardog goes a step further with our best-in-class Inference Engine, which infers new connections within your knowledge graph, helping you discover new relationships to drive your KOL strategy. Machine learning can help you identify emerging experts based on the behavior of similar KOLs.
Making the patient-centric case to KOLs
It is not enough to simply identify key influencers; MSLs also need to make the case to these individuals. KOLs frequently complain about pharma companies providing insufficient evidence of value. This comes even as pharma companies are awash in data!
Luckily, MSLs are in a position—between development and commercial, and customer and pharmaceutical—where they can help demonstrate the patient benefit that payers and providers are looking for. Armed with a connected network of data enriched with context, they can show how clinical trial data suggest a particular therapeutic benefit for a specific subsection of a population targeted by a particular provider. A knowledge graph-enabled Medical Affairs team can truly bring patient centricity to life for payers and providers.