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Why, and how, to engage key opinion leaders as a medical affairs professional in 2024

7 minutes

Key opinion leaders (KOLs) are crucial in both the development of medical therapies and clin...

Key opinion leaders (KOLs) are crucial in both the development of medical therapies and clinical research, so working out how to identify them accurately and get them on side is vital as a medical affairs professional. These leaders are so influential that connecting with the right one, who has significant expertise and influence within a specific disease community, can greatly improve your organisation's chances of success, whether you're launching a new product or conducting an early-stage clinical trial. So, where do you start?


How do KOLs play a role in medical affairs?

Well first you need to understand what a KOL really is. In medical affairs, a KOL will be a professional who stands out in their field, whether it’s because of their work with a specific disease or a broader therapeutic area like oncology. Thanks to their knowledge they’ll often be invited to collaborate on various projects critical to an organisation’s medical affairs team. For example, they might be leaned on to answer complex clinical questions, or contribute their expert opinions to scientific publications, or give their specialist input on the development of training programmes for medical affairs teams.

When new data emerges or regulations change, you’ll often see medical affairs teams turn to KOLs for their insights. With their hands-on experience with patients and close interaction with peers, KOLs are uniquely equipped to offer their expertise based on real-world knowledge, helping medical affairs teams stay current and make informed decisions.

Beyond just providing insights, KOLs play a crucial role in giving context to findings and encouraging the adoption of new medications and devices. Their endorsement helps build trust in new therapies and treatments, helping their acceptance and use. KOLs can also offer follow-up insights on the development and implementation of these therapies, making sure they are used effectively and to their full potential.


Why is it important to have a KOL network?

In recent years, biopharmas have increasingly invested in specialty drugs, with more than 50% of pharmaceutical spending in the US now coming from specialty drugs. To make sure these specialty drugs have the greatest chance of commercial success when launched, companies are focusing heavily on market preparation through activities like engaging KOLs. With these leaders playing such a key role in educating and influencing the medical community, it’s crucial to get them on board to ensure the acceptance and success of new therapies.

Not only can they provide essential context for scientific findings, helping to interpret and communicate the significance of new data, but their opinions carry weight in the medical community, heightening the trust in new discoveries. So, connecting with KOLs and maintaining those relationships can make a real difference when it comes to nudging a product toward approval stage.

But securing the support of KOLs can be competitive. The majority of KOLs, around 70%, engage with only one biopharma company. So, prioritising networking and building strong connections with KOLs early on is absolutely vital. By doing so, your organisation can gain valuable insights and support that might otherwise go to competitors.


How do you identify and engage the right KOLs?

A KOL is only a good fit when their research and interests align specifically with your organisation's objectives, whether that’s a product launch, investigating new uses for an existing therapy, or conducting an early-stage clinical trial.

Here’s how to identify the best KOLs and engage them effectively, especially in the post-COVID era where digital engagement is key.


Identifying the right KOLs

To pinpoint the most suitable KOLs, you’ve got to be precise in your targeting. First, make sure that the KOL’s research and interests match your project. So, look out for individuals who:

  • Have published in authoritative journals on relevant topics.
  • Hold leadership roles in similar organisations.
  • Have prior experience as KOLs.


Next, ask yourself:

  • What groups do you need insights from to achieve your objectives?
  • Are there influencer groups that can be involved to enhance the discussion?
  • Should these groups be engaged separately or together for the best outcome?

These considerations will help you refine your search and focus on KOLs who can provide the most valuable insights.


Engaging KOLs in the post-COVID era

Although some time has passed since the COVID-19 pandemic, its effects are still felt across the life sciences sector. Conferences are still taking place virtually with delegates choosing to attend remotely, people are still opting for online meetings compared to in-person ones, and when it comes to medical affairs, it’s transformed how these teams engage with KOLs.

Here are some best practices for engaging KOLs today:


Quality over quantity

Pre-pandemic, success was often measured by the number of interactions with KOLs. Now, the focus has shifted to meaningful, high-quality engagements. Prioritising scientific exchange and evidence-based discussions helps build deeper, more valuable relationships with KOLs. Mutual exchanges of value, clear communication, and timely integration of the opinion leader into the medical affairs process is still essential. By ensuring that both parties’ benefit, maintaining open lines of communication, and integrating KOLs into your processes promptly, you can create stronger, and more productive collaborations.


Digital engagement

The pandemic accelerated the move to digitally interacting with KOLs, so much so that it is now considered the norm. There are a few ways to go about engaging with a KOL online:

  • Host virtual meetings and roundtables. By hosting online discussions, you can invite a wider range of potential KOL partners. Facilitating these kinds of in-depth conversations or roundtables yourself will make your selected KOLs more inclined to engage with you afterwards.
  • Social media, particularly LinkedIn, is a simple yet often overlooked method for engaging KOLs. Many medical affairs KOLs are active on LinkedIn, making it an excellent platform to connect with them and initiate ongoing discussions about relevant topics. By using LinkedIn to engage with KOLs, medical affairs teams can keep in continual contact, build relationships, and demonstrate their commitment to collaboration, increasing the likelihood that KOLs will be willing to work with them.
  • Focus on value. Rather than viewing KOLs as traditional influencers with high follower counts, recognise their unique value in providing deep, contextual insights. Their input is crucial in interpreting scientific findings and fostering trust in new therapies. By focusing on the unique value that KOLs bring, medical affairs teams can build stronger, more meaningful relationships, making KOLs more likely to collaborate and provide ongoing support.


The rise of Digital Opinion Leaders

In addition to traditional KOLs, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of Digital Opinion Leaders (DOLs). These individuals have significant influence through digital channels and can be powerful allies in your medical affairs strategy. DOLs may include traditional KOLs with a strong online presence, health bloggers, and advocacy groups active on social media. Working with a DOL will let your medical affairs team to reach broader and more diverse audiences. DOLs will leverage their digital expertise and wide-reaching platforms to amplify your message and enhance engagement with key stakeholders.


By accurately identifying and building strong relationships with KOLs, organisations can significantly enhance their chances of success in product launches and clinical trials. Leveraging digital tools and platforms to engage KOLs allows for broader reach and deeper, more meaningful interactions. Focus on quality engagements, mutual value exchanges, and clear communication and you will see more productive collaborations, ultimately driving the success of medical affairs activities and the overall growth of your organisation.

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