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5 FAQs About Finding & Fostering Relationships with Influential Key Opinion Leaders

In our increasingly digital-focused world of healthcare, digital, regional and local influencers matter just as much as traditional KOLs.

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It’s critical for medical science liaisons (MSLs) and medical affairs teams to build lasting relationships with key opinion leaders (KOLs). And in our increasingly digital-focused world of healthcare, regional and local influencers matter just as much as traditional KOLs. These relationships have a direct impact on the success of clinical trials, bringing treatments to market, and reaching broader and more diverse patient populations.

Yet, recent industry data shows that MSLs struggle with identifying and accessing KOLs. Compounding this struggle? MSLs rarely get access to fresh KOL lists — these are usually handed down over time throughout the organization, or only include KOLs at big academic medical centers.

But, as the saying goes, you don’t know who you don’t know … right? In this case, wrong.

Whenever we raise the topic of the importance of “new” KOLs, we are often asked the same questions: Who are they? Why are they important? How and where do I find them? And, how can I forge meaningful relationships with them?

Let’s answer some of these frequently asked questions that MSLs have when it comes to identifying and engaging with undiscovered KOLs.

FAQ: What’s the difference between a treatment leader, KOL and DOL?

Answer: Let’s break down all the different types of KOLs. Traditional KOLs are established physicians or PhDs well-known in their fields. They regularly publish papers, attend and speak at conferences, and sit on multiple advisory boards. They are very public and often cited.

Digital opinion leaders (DOLs) can be anyone from healthcare professionals to patient  advocates or researchers who have an influential digital voice in the community. DOLs want to educate, engage, and challenge their followers in the name of science – while also positioning themselves as experts. They are skilled at communicating digitally and are building expertise and credibility to back up their statements. Research shows that discovering digital opinion leaders (DOLs) is even harder than finding traditional KOLs, with 66% of MSLs sharing this frustration.

‍The challenges often lie with finding new and different KOLs, who, on the other hand, are thought leaders (digital or otherwise) but who are up and coming or simply not as well known as the more veteran KOLs – they are clearly talented, but haven’t yet had the chance to prove themselves. They may be publishing, but they haven’t developed a body of work over decades that distinguishes them as a KOL or DOL, like their more well-known counterparts. Or, perhaps they are early in their careers or are the “shy type” who aren’t vocal and have flown under the radar.

All of these opinion leaders are like pieces to a puzzle – together they bring more value and a fresh perspective than when they stand alone.

FAQ: Why is it important to update stale KOL lists?

Answer: Medical affairs teams typically target the traditional KOLs that are already well-known in their fields. But, these experts don’t always reflect the demographics of real patients or physicians. This lack of representation can carry through to everything from clinical trials to treatment distribution, contributing to the ongoing inequity in healthcare.

The biggest value in uncovering these thought leaders of tomorrow is in their diversity of thought. They have the potential to be the next big influencers, bolster awareness of clinical trials, and truly impact the future healthcare for the better.

FAQ: Is one type of KOL more valuable than another?

Answer: There are a few types of KOLs that MSLs may want to focus on. The first is what we call “rising stars.” These opinion leaders are the next heads of departments and presidents of medical societies. By building relationships with these so-called junior KOLs early, you’ll have that connection established by the time they become more well-known, and they’ll be more responsive to your requests. The funny truth is that most “rising stars” are not as young as you might think.  With med school, residency, fellowship and sometimes post-doc positions these “junior” KOLs are usually on average 15 years post medical school.

Another one would be physicians, researchers, or other specialists that represent diverse patient populations. Forging connections with these types of experts will help increase the availability of trials to underserved populations and gain a better understanding of how well the drug may help patients affected by the disease.

Finally, there is a type we refer to as uncut GEMS (general expert and meaningful stars). These are doctors who are not (yet) KOLs, but have significant experience in a given therapeutic area with an established academic and treatment career. They can bring fresh ideas and diversity of thought to the table, but still need the opportunity to break through and have their research recognized.

FAQ: How can I find these KOLs?

Answer: It can be tricky to track and understand the digital or social media activities of new KOLs. MSLs have to change the way they do their due-diligence to find thought leaders and digital influencers, otherwise these KOLs will be missed.

We find this simple, five-step exercise is a great place to start:

  1. Do a two-week look back on one social channel with a few providers to understand who even has a social media presence.
  2. Pick three to five who do have social media profiles, and spend some time analyzing them to get a feel for their activity and level of influence.
  3. Create a grid or spreadsheet with the names of the doctors and these parameters: how many people they are connected to, who they are following, who they are followed by (gives glance of reach), how many times they have shared content, how many times they have engaged with content via a reaction like a thumbs up or a like, and so on.
  4. Fill out the grid and look for any patterns that might emerge. Are they “social scientists” who often respond and engage? Are they “silent scholars” who don’t engage much? Or are they “somewhat salient” and only engage sometimes? This will give insight into how to approach them.
  5. Look ahead at your organization’s initiatives for the next 6-12 months and consider how your new understanding of these DOLs might change your strategies. Could they be beneficial to connect with? Will they add diversity to your trial landscape?

A great bell-weather is to look at who they are networked with and how often they are cited by other experts, and a data-driven network can help filter this. MSLs can leverage technology to help, and there are AI-driven platforms out there that maintain up-to-date KOL profiles including social content. These tools can give insight into these rising experts and their spheres of influence, rank experts, monitor social conversations, and help tailor communications.

FAQ: OK, I’ve identified some new KOLs. Now what?

Answer: The way in which MSLs engage with KOLs is evolving as we emerge from the pandemic. New research shows that nearly 38% of MSLs said moving to virtual meetings with KOLs had a negative impact on their job, and 70% of MSLs prefer to go back to in-person meetings in a post-Covid world.

During the height of the pandemic, MSLs and medical affairs had to get creative in how they connected with KOLs. Gone were the days of in-person meetings, and relationship building went digital. But now the pendulum is swinging back and in-person engagements are once again trending.

Recent data tells us that both MSLs and KOLs prefer in-person interactions. But regardless of how you connect with these emerging KOLs, personalization will be key. Considering that the majority of meetings between MSLs and KOLs last less than 30 minutes, it’s important to make an impact. If you can gather information on what KOLs are discussing and where, and use that insight to tailor the conversation, you can make the most of your limited time.

Photo: oatawa, Getty Images

Stacey Rivkin is Vice President of Client Solutions at H1. She leads a team of subject matter experts who drive client insight generation. Stacey partners with leaders in pharma and biotech to help them build and maintain collaborative, mutually beneficial relationships with key global external experts and other stakeholders through optimized identification, profiling and integrated strategic engagement.

Stacey joined H1 after almost 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry including at Allergan, Boehringer Ingelheim and Merck. She has extensive experience in a broad array of disease areas and has worked globally throughout the pharmaceutical lifecycle from early-development through commercialization. A proud career highlight was working on the Boehringer team that drove the 2016 FDA approval of Jardiance® (empagliflozin) as the first approved diabetes medication to reduce cardiovascular death in adults with type 2 diabetes.

Stacey graduated from Cornell University with a BA in Government. She lives outside New York City with her husband, three children and “pandemic puppy” Otis.

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