Going from the Field to home Office: How to Engage with HCPs

Josh Pirtle

April 17, 2020

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The anniversary of our collective move from normal life to COVID-driven restrictions is almost upon us. For a year now working from home has been the reality – a dramatic change for many professionals including the former medical affairs road warriors: the medical science liaisons (MSLs). 

However, MSLs find themselves in an unusual position: as field-based professionals they are used to interacting remotely with colleagues and working from their home office when they are not traveling. So that part was easy.

It is the other part, interacting with and engaging healthcare professionals (HCPs), e.g. key opinion leaders (KOLs), that continues to be difficult. The challenge then and now revolves around the best ways to reach and remotely interact with KOLs in a meaningful way and to keep them engaged.

Nurturing existing relationships 

Remotely nurturing existing relationships, while not easy, at least builds on a solid foundation. Having met and worked with the KOL before, the MSL will know their scientific needs and interests and understand their communication style and preferences. 

To maintain - or hopefully – expand that relationship MSLs need to continue to stay informed about their KOLs’ activities. While in the past that information was often exchanged in conversation in face-to-face meetings, MSLs now have to rely even more on databases to keep them up to date on their KOL’s activities, e.g. did they publish a new study, present at a virtual conference, receive payments for consulting or clinical work from another organization?

Utilizing accurate and current profiles of each KOL achieves two main things: 

  • Enables an MSL to have a meaningful conversation with the KOL about a topic that is of interest and relevance to them. For example, if claims and referral data show that a healthcare provider has seen an increasing number of patients with a specific co-morbidity or complications, offering up relevant information around that topic is much more likely to elicit interest than a generic “just checking in and here is some new study we published” approach.
  • On an interpersonal level, really knowing what an HCP is dealing with in their daily work, whether that is treating patients, conducting clinical trials or publishing treatment guidelines shows the HCP that the MSL cares about their work and took the time to go beyond a superficial level of understanding. This creates goodwill and increases the chances of deeper engagement.

When engaging KOLs virtually the question of how to – technically – go about it is also highly relevant. In the early days of the pandemic this question tended to be front and center. MSLs and HCPs alike had to learn to use new platforms and get used to the dynamics of all virtual meetings. Depending on the level of tech savviness, adoption of new means of communication was more or less difficult. While it still causes problems, after a year, virtual meetings have become the norm. Still, MSLs need to be careful to meet their KOLs where they are, if a video conference call is uncomfortable for the KOL, the good old phone call or an email might just be the way to interact with some KOLs and a text message the best way to reach others. 

In addition to what and how, a third question is important: why? Before contacting a KOL, it is critical for an MSL to answer a question like “Why am I contacting the KOL today? Why should the KOL care?” Being able to answer the why question concisely helps MSLs make sure that what they are about to communicate is of value to the KOL and with that increases the chances of meaningful engagement.

Engaging new HCPs

While maintaining existing relationships virtually is no small feat, it is engaging new KOLs that poses the real challenge. Whether medical affairs need to expand their panel of experts for an established drug or therapeutic area, add a new geography, or engage KOLs in a new therapeutic area, making first contact has proven extremely difficult. Accounts of teams failing to recruit a single new KOL since the start of virtual-only interactions made the rounds showcasing just how hard it is to get the attention of busy HCPs during a time of crisis.

KOL mapping – while always important – plays an even more critical role under these difficult circumstances. Identifying a healthcare professional whose interests and scientific needs are very closely aligned with the objectives of the organization is critical. The more relevant and mutually beneficial an engagement promises to be from the very start, the higher the likelihood that the HCP will take the first, critical step: replying. 

Understanding a HCPs network of collaborators is highly important. Connecting via a mutual contact increases the chances of receiving an answer dramatically.

Other than that: emails are pretty much what it comes down to and with that the art and science of writing subject lines that are not only concise but pique the KOL’s interest enough to read the email. Focusing on the Why question is also very important in the case of a “cold” email, the KOL needs to understand why they should connect and why they receive the email. In short, honing those writing skills will pay off. Data from a recent survey H1 did with the Medical Science Liaison Society demonstrate the critical role emails play now in KOL – MSL relationships: almost three quarteres of global MSLs and MSL mangers said that an email exchange is considered a “KOL engagement” during these virtual times.

The switch from field to office, from face-to-face to virtual hasn’t been easy and didn’t go smoothly but a year in, things have gotten easier. Many industry experts expect that virtual interaction and engagement are here to stay – not exclusively but to a much larger extent than before. This might be a good thing: MSLs might not have to return to full road warrior mode, more frequent, concise virtual interaction between MSLs and KOLs might benefit both groups and those KOLs in remote areas who MSLs could seldom visit face-to-face might benefit from more readily available, virtual interaction bringing everybody a bit closer together. 

Great preparation and an understanding of a KOL’s activities requires access to a comprehensive database. At H1 building this database is what we spend all our time on. If you want to learn more about the data we collect and how they could help you with your work, please schedule a call, one of our team members will be happy to give you an overview.

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