Not the Typical Opinion Leaders

Ariel Katz
Feb 9, 2021

Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) play an important role in drug development and commercialization. As the science behind drugs gets more and more complicated physicians look at their experienced peers for guidance and information. Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) in pharmaceutical companies are tasked with identifying and engaging KOLs in their area of expertise, and to enlist their help and support in disseminating information about their drug.

As healthcare overall is getting more complicated and democratized by social and digital media, new key opinion leaders emerge in addition to the traditional physician KOL in drug development.

Medical Devices and Diagnostics

Both the medical device and diagnostic industries can benefit greatly from the insights KOLs bring to the table. During medical device development an experienced clinician can provide valuable input early on and steer crucial product design decisions in the right direction by answering questions like these: “What is the clinical practice and the workflow?” “How does the product design need to be adjusted to fit that workflow?” and “What data does the company need to generate to convince physicians to adopt their product once approved?” A KOL should also evaluate the competitors’ products - the decision to prescribe a particular hearing aid, pacemaker, stent, or artificial joint is not made in isolation and for a physician to convincingly comment on one product they need to have experience with multiple.

Similarly, diagnostic companies are well advised to seek input from experienced clinicians before finalizing their product design. What started out as an innovative idea that will revolutionize how a disease is diagnosed might end up a commercial flop without the early real-life input from a physician who knows the clinical practice. Just like with medical devices, KOL input early in development, throughout development and once the product hits the market can be a critical success factor. Similarly, for the important question of reimbursement: getting KOL input early can make the difference between a viable business and an unsustainable one. Expert KOLs can also advise on the challenges of working with a pharma partner on a companion diagnostic.

Nurse Practitioners, Physicians’ Assistants, Pharmacists, Payers

While physicians are and will remain the most sought after and utilized KOLs, other healthcare practitioners have been stepping up. Nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants are two examples: both professions care for patients and prescribe medication and can provide MSLs with valuable feedback and insights into clinical practice.

To address regulatory and reimbursement issues pharmaceutical companies increasingly seek the input of specialized KOLs. Since most clinicians aren’t regulatory or reimbursement experts, KOLs from payer organizations fill the gap.

Pharmacists are another group of professionals that pharma companies are targeting for two different phases of drug development: their expertise in toxicology makes them valuable advisors during pre-clinical development, and their direct contact with patients and their ability to translate the clinical profile of a drug into language a patient understands makes them important key opinion leaders in post-launch commercialization.

Physician KOLs, especially the rock stars among them, see increasing requests from MSLs for their time and expertise. That fact plus the changes in the healthcare industry has led to pharma companies and increasingly developers of medical devices and diagnostics to reach out to a broader set of expert KOLs to help educate healthcare professionals and other stakeholders about their products.