Words by James Coker
The topic of the pharmaceutical industry’s relationship with healthcare thought leaders has not escaped its share of controversy and even cynicism over the years. Yet these influential physicians undoubtedly have an important role to play, particularly when working with the industry to speak directly to healthcare professionals. This is of course to the benefit of pharma, by indirectly promoting and legitimising their medicines, but crucially also to doctors, by raising awareness of new treatment options that can enhance care of patients. An issue pharma should now be considering is whether their existing relationships with key opinion leaders (KOLs) can be harvested further, cultivating an expanse of fertile land and fresh produce that can be readily consumed by the entire community of HCPs.
“As well as being hugely prominent figures in their field, KOLs are generally fantastic communicators, meaning their messages tend to stick in the minds of doctors,” comments Spencer Gore, CEO, EMG-Health. “I believe there’s huge potential for pharma to ensure the valuable knowledge of these thought leaders is accessed by a much higher number of HCPs than is currently the case.”
Data-based analyses of treatments by expert doctors during industry-sponsored symposia is a tried and tested format; it provides HCPs with an opportunity to witness first-hand the information they require about enhancing patient care and to discuss the subject matter further. Pharma companies can also get a useful gauge of the initial reception to the messages communicated.
However, there remains significant scope for the pharma–thought leader relationship to transcend its current solar system. With pharma becoming increasingly altruistic and tending to think more holistically about the entire healthcare universe, it is only natural to suggest that they can work more frequently with these renowned physicians to present a broader range of information. The industry’s tentative footsteps into health education is one key example of this. “We’re seeing pharma play an increasingly active role in providing medical education and raising awareness of emerging health topics to physicians, who often do not have the time to keep up-to-date with the details of new trends,” outlines Daniel Healy, Director, EMG-Health. “This type of function is well fulfilled by thought leaders with a niche in a given field.” Examples of such topics may include advancements in ultrasound techniques and the rise of unpatented medicines.
The messages of thought leaders can reach a potential audience of hundreds of thousands by repurposing it online
Working with thought leaders to provide medical education offers a chance for pharma to try their hand at various communication methods. Interviewing KOLs is one notable trend in this regard. “Interviews are a really effective format for thought leaders to describe their personal viewpoint and experiences, which can improve awareness and understanding of health issues amongst HCPs in easy-to-understand, everyday language,” says Gore. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine a physician, in the midst of a particularly hectic period of consultations, meetings, and paperwork, welcoming a lighter way to stay abreast of changes in their field.
Most crucially, pharma should ensure that the insights of KOLs are at the fingertips – quite literally – of every doctor in the relevant therapy area. The internet provides unparalleled opportunities, enabling the expert insights to be captured for eternity. “It can be very difficult for HCPs to attend every healthcare symposium in their field, either due to time commitments or geographic location: the vast majority of doctors who can benefit from hearing from the thought leaders can only do so if it is available online later,” notes Healy.
Repurposing this content on the web in no way diminishes the value of the traditional KOL-led industry-sponsored symposia; it will instead serve to magnify its significance and impact. “Rather than just being heard by hundreds of physicians during industry-sponsored symposiums, the messages of thought leaders can reach a potential audience of hundreds of thousands by repurposing it online,” comments Gore. “There are many options for presenting this content, catering to the different ways the audience prefer to digest information. Symposiums can be filmed or written up, enabling HCPs to observe the discussion at their leisure in a way that suits them. Likewise, KOL interviews can be displayed in written articles, video, and potentially even audio formats.”
We’re seeing pharma play an increasingly active role in providing medical education
The pharma–thought leader relationship is one that provides a portal to the hearts and minds of doctors. The time has arrived for this portal to reveal another dimension, which can be achieved firstly by pharma thinking more innovatively about the ways KOL messages are being presented, beyond the data-heavy world of symposium sessions. Fully utilising the internet to repurpose the messages of KOLs should also become a priority for pharma, to spread the wisdom of thought leaders to the widest possible audience.