Healthcare providers (HCPs) expect greater product education and information on the medications that they prescribe to patients. At the same time, data and scientific information relating to therapies continues to become more complex. Thus, the role of the Medical Science Liaison (MSL) has become more and more crucial in the key stakeholder and Key Opinion Leader (KOL) engagement space as MSLs are tasked with communicating complex concepts in a clear and concise way.
To gain more insights into the evolving role of the MSL, I sat down, virtually, with Erin Duffy, a MSL for Merz Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical company committed to improving the lives of patients who suffer from movement disorders, neurological conditions, and other health conditions that severely impact patients’ quality of life. She provided a great overview of her role and day-to-day activities and offered up some tips for effectively engaging with key stakeholders and KOLs. Here are the highlights of our conversation:
Tom Hemy: Can you tell our readers about your background, and what your current role is?
Erin Duffy: I trained as a PharmD, and I worked in retail pharmacy and Managed Care for Medicare & Medicaid previously, each for about 5 years. Two years ago, I moved into the pharmaceutical industry where I became a MSL for Merz Therapeutics.
Now, I mostly provide scientific education on our lead product, Xeomin (incobotulinumtoxinA) for its approved therapeutic indications. I cover 14 states in two time zones. For reference, I should mention here that Xeomin has a black box drug warning with potentially serious side effects.
TH: With stakeholder engagement and education being such a key part of your role as an MSL, how did COVID-19 affect your day-to-day activities? Particularly when trying to meet with key stakeholders and KOLs?
ED: COVID-19 put an abrupt halt on our travel for several months. This was a drastic change to how we, as MSLs, were interacting with our thought leaders. Prior to COVID-19, I was flying 3-4 days a week to meet with providers or go to scientific congresses. As a result of the travel restrictions, I had to quickly act to cancel all my upcoming meetings, some that were for the very next day!
A few weeks later, I reached out to see if those same providers would be willing to meet with me via WebEx or FaceTime. This was the first time we’d be using this method for meetings. About half agreed. There were so many glitches, such as the audio not working and lags in image display. Thankfully, over time, these video platforms were built to handle the high volume, and meetings thereafter went a lot smoother. Now, video chat is the preferred way to meet. This has allowed for so much flexibility on when we can meet, who can attend, and the ability to easily reschedule. Without the need to coordinate flights, these worries don’t really exist anymore.
TH: Touching briefly on the traveling aspect, how did you make use of all the extra time suddenly available to you?
ED: I previously spent a lot of my time on an airplane, which isn’t the most comfortable space to try to read scientific publications or prepare new slide decks! But now, it’s great to have all that time back. Approximately 4 hours a day spent on flights, is now mine. My whole team was excited to think about the things we could work on with this extra time. We brainstormed on project ideas and then got to work. Simple things, like updating slide decks for our product profile were finally able to be completed. We started having weekly journal clubs, which allowed us to get caught up on all relevant publications. It was great because we each bring a little something different to the table when we’re evaluating these publications, and that collaboration really strengthened each of our capabilities in assessing the studies.
TH: And circling back to key stakeholder/KOL engagement and education, what have you found to be some best practices when preparing for meetings with such audiences?
ED: Beforehand, identify 3-4 items you’d like to discuss or share with your thought leader. Maybe you’d like their opinion on what’s lacking in the market or how their clinic is handling patients and operations during COVID-19. Maybe you’re informing them of newly published data or asking what they thought of a recent congress. Plan out the ways you can bring value to the table for both the thought leader and for your company.
For example, if you’re going to discuss a particular clinical study, make sure you can summarize it succinctly, but also be able to expand on the details, if asked. You are the expert, and you don’t want to fumble over your words.
TH: Do you have any advice for others on preparing for virtual meetings?
ED: If you’re giving a presentation virtually, do a practice run by recording yourself beforehand so you can hear and see where you can improve. It’s important to be efficient when giving presentations via a live stream. You don’t get to grab people’s attention by looking them in the eye as you would in person. So, try your best to explain the data concisely while keeping everyone’s attention.
Now is also a great time to invite leadership to your meetings since no one has to fly to attend them. Not only does it help to strengthen relationships and get projects moving along but having a few people on the call helps the conversation flow.
TH: That leads nicely onto tips for during the meeting, what works best for you when directly engaging with key stakeholders and KOLs? Especially now when most meetings are taking place remotely.
ED: Active listening and empathy. The pandemic is new territory. And it’s not just changing the way you work; it’s changing the way we all work. The healthcare providers you speak with are no different. At first, many providers, I spoke with, were looking to be connected to peers to see how they were handling safely injecting their patients with their medications during COVID-19. This led to us hosting a few virtual socials with thought leaders from different territories to connect them. I also heard from academic training program chairs who wanted help developing or finding virtual education opportunities for their medical residents. This was new ground for them, so to be able to collaborate on these types of requests was a great feeling.
TH: Based on your experiences, what key trends can you envisage developing in the key stakeholder/KOL engagement space?
ED: As I’ve only been a MSL for two years, I don’t have much to compare to in regard to key trends. However, since COVID-19 really disrupted the normal ways of engaging with KOLs, I can see the future of that changing. I don’t believe we will ever go back to visiting every doctor in person, or at least not at the frequency we once did. The trend of video meetings is here to stay. Previously, if you wanted to discuss an upcoming indication with key stakeholders, that could take six months or more to get those meetings coordinated. Going forward, these discussions will be done in a matter of a couple months via video combined with a few in-person meetings. It’s not to say that we’ll forego in-person meetings because those certainly still hold value. But the flexibility and convenience of jumping on a quick video call will be a permanent adaptation for many MSLs.
TH: Thank you very much for your time and insights. Finally, is there anything else you’d like us to know about you?
ED: I’m a lover of travel and celebrations and am missing both terribly during the pandemic!
I’d like to thank Erin for taking the time to share her experiences, knowledge, and insights with us. It’s good to hear that she and her team have successfully adapted in the last year. A finding that is also consistent with our own ongoing research into life science stakeholder engagement. After surveying a variety of professionals last year, we found that almost two-thirds of those involved in stakeholder engagement had a generally positive experience of virtual meetings and discussions. As well as this, many clients of our BaseCase stakeholder engagement platform have reported successful adaptations to virtual environments from face-to-face meetings.
As a final note, thank you to Elio Evangelista at the Accreditation for Medical Affairs (ACMA) for facilitating this interview.