Engaging KOLs Overseas

Ariel Katz
Feb 9, 2021

Benefits and Challenges of Working with International KOLs

Medical and clinical research are international and clinical experts and key opinion leaders (KOLs) can be found all over the world. No wonder then, that pharmaceutical companies are looking beyond borders for international KOLs to work with. Teaming up with the best, brightest, and most well-known experts regardless of where they live and work can have advantages but companies working with international KOLs also face some challenges that need to be considered.

The Case for International KOLs

Two related but distinct situations might require working with experts from abroad:

1. High-profile events such as large product launches or high-profile meetings of domestic and/or international associations or as an addition to high-level specialty advisory boards.

2. Market entry and/or product launches in international markets where local thought leaders will have more credibility than experts from the US and will be more tuned into cultural sensitivities.

In the first case, companies are interested in working with the most well-known and recognized thought-leaders from across the globe as these experts provide visibility and credibility within the scientific and medical community that lesser known experts simply can’t. These experts can be major draws at events and help the company stand out among the many companies vying for attention.

In the case of high-level advisory boards, knowledge, experience, and reputation are everything. A lot of company resources in the form of money and time go into creating and managing advisory boards as well as making sure the insights of these experts get distributed throughout the relevant parts of the organization. Therefore, it is essential to identify and work with the best suited experts – regardless of their location.

For smaller companies, being associated with an internationally renowned KOL can get them a great deal of attention not just from healthcare providers but also from potential partners in the industry and the investment community. Being associated with a “big name” therefore goes beyond sharing of scientific and clinical knowledge and insight and has the power of giving a company credibility by putting it on the map.

A product launch in an international market is another situation where using international KOLs can be helpful. Healthcare providers might prefer hearing from a local expert rather than a US expert who knows less about the situation in their market. For regional meetings or events, e.g. one targeting the EU countries, tensions between attendees from different countries can be avoided by choosing a thought leader, who everybody can agree, is an internationally recognized and respected expert in their field.

The Challenges of Working with International KOLs

Working across borders, time zones, languages and cultures is never trivial and so it is no surprise that working with international KOLs poses greater challenges than working with US experts.

One of the first challenges is to identify the right international KOL. The fact that those KOLs are so well-known makes this process simultaneously easier and more difficult. Easier because there is but a small number of world-renowned experts in each field and they are known, therefore coming up with a shortlist is relatively simple. However, since these experts will have such great influence and also tend to be more expensive than national and regional KOLs, it is even more crucial to collect all the relevant information and metrics and make the right decision.

Many of the challenges associated with working with international KOLs are logistical: long and expensive travel will make face-to-face meetings rarer, working across several time zones requires some participants to work at odd hours, and makes managing relationships harder. Visas might be required for the KOLs to travel to the US for meetings so more long-term planning is required and language barriers might even make communication difficult.

Internationally renowned experts tend to come with a hefty price tag and companies must weigh whether the higher price tag plus travel expenses are worth the benefit of having an international KOL join the team.

In many cases the answer to the question “Do the benefits outweigh the challenges and cost?” will be positive but there might well be cases, especially for smaller companies, where the cost is simply too high and/or the logistical challenges too much to handle for a small team.

However, overcoming any challenges associated with working with international KOLs might be worth it for the expert with the right expertise.