An H1 'Insight': The Changing Role of Medical Affairs

Ariel Katz
Sep 17, 2020

Changes in healthcare have turned medical affairs into a strategic function

When it comes to health, unbiased, evidence-based information trumps marketing slogans any day. Regulatory agencies, healthcare professionals, payers and patients for years put pressure on pharmaceutical companies and demanded a clear separation of sales and marketing claims from data-driven scientific facts. That separation gave rise to a whole new profession: medical affairs.

Initially the role of medical affairs (MA) was fairly narrow: MA professionals acted as intermediary between R&D and the sales and marketing teams. They typically got involved in Phase III clinical trials and stayed engaged throughout launch and post-launch activities. Their role was in many cases reactive: providing data and information, educating stakeholders and answering questions. Medical affairs were just one, not even particularly large, aspect of drug sales and marketing efforts.

A Changing Healthcare Landscape Changed Medical Affairs

The changing paradigm in the pharmaceutical industry, away from the “one drug fits all” blockbuster approach to personalized medicine plus a strong focus on rare diseases has had a profound impact on the medical affairs departments of (bio)pharmaceutical companies. Add digital and social media, used across multiple platforms to share information with stakeholders, e.g. patients, healthcare providers, payers and KOLs, plus big data to the mix and you end up with a vastly expanded role and broader responsibilities for medical affairs teams.

Here we are taking a closer look at these three important factors that have contributed to turning medical affairs from a minor player into a critical strategic function in drug development and commercialization.

Personalized or Precision Medicine and Focus on Rare Diseases

Over the last decade we have seen a shift in drug discovery and development away from blockbuster drugs targeting chronic diseases to personalized treatment and more focus on developing treatments for rare diseases. In the process the underlying science has become increasingly complex and communicating this specialized information is the responsibility of the medical affairs department. Medical affairs professionals now, more than ever, are highly trained professionals with deep domain expertise, who serve as the critical interface between the company and the various stakeholders, e.g. physicians, HCPs and patients. To be effective they need to be objective and trusted scientific partners and point persons for all scientific and medical questions about a disease and/or drug.

The era of personalized medicine means less high-level messaging driven by marketing and sales and more specific information and custom-tailored answers provided by medical affairs. Numbers support this trend: while the number of pharmaceutical sales reps has steadily decreased the number of Medical Science Liaisons has increased by 300% over the last decade and is expected to continue to grow.

Big Data

No list about trends in any industry is complete without at least a mention of big data. With the help of modern technologies, pharma companies are able to generate, collect and analyze huge amounts of data. The information created benefits medical affairs in a number of ways. Data are critical for evidence-based communications with internal and external stakeholders, especially physicians and key opinion leaders (KOLs). In addition, data-driven approaches support activities such as the identification of outstanding KOL candidates and also give medical affairs professionals the tools to track and measure the impact of their own work for the company. The use of artificial intelligence algorithms for analysis will further increase the value of these large data sets.

Social Media

Social and digital media has fundamentally changed not just how people communicate but also how information is disseminated. The pharmaceutical industry is no exception: knowledge moves quickly, patients have more information at their fingertips and organizing, for example in patient advocacy groups, has become easy. Social media has made it possible and necessary to engage individually with a much larger number of stakeholders than ever before. Personalized medicine and personalized communication have worked in tandem to boost the role of medical affairs as the critical point of contact for all information needs.

Medical affairs in pharmaceutical companies has undergone significant changes over the last decade and has seen its role increase in scope, depth and importance. The future holds more of the developments that have shaped medical affairs into what they are today: personalized medicine is here to stay, modern technologies will continue to create vast data sets that increasingly will be mined using artificial intelligence algorithms, and digital and social media will make communication between patients, healthcare providers, experts and drug developers even more personal and fast. With that, the role of medical affairs professionals is bound to become even more pivotal and central in the future.