What’s in a name: should we continue to use the term “KOL?”

Ariel Katz
Sep 17, 2020

KOL, or “key opinion leader,” is a title that crops up just about everywhere in the pharma and biotech space.  Although primarily associated with medical affairs, whether it’s in the context of clinical development, continuing medical education, or even commercial teams, someone is bound to bring up KOL engagement as integral to the success of an emerging drug therapy.  But the truth is that it’s greeted with varying degrees of enthusiasm by the people--influential medical or life science professionals--that it describes. In fact, a 2015 survey by Pharma Marketing News found that 62% of independently recognized medical experts thought that pharma should move away from the term.  More surprising, 56% of surveyed pharma execs agreed.

The reality is that critical opinions about the practices of KOL engagement abound in academia, including accusations that it’s just a euphemistic attempt to get around Sunshine Act restrictions.  One can’t help but wonder if referring to collaborators and consultants as “key” instruments to an unspecified goal, who are valued for their “opinions,” despite their devotion to science, could be in part responsible for negative perceptions.  

Even if you dismiss those concerns from the “KOL’s” themselves, one thing often becomes clear when you interact with any colleagues outside of a small team. From a purely practical standpoint, its ubiquity has made “KOL” a vague and uninformative turn of phrase.  It lumps together scientists, high prescribers, frequent conference presenters, advisory board members, and so much else-in a less-than-flattering phrase no less. Whether “external experts” (as some companies such as Merck have been increasingly referring to) or another term comes to take the place of “KOL’s”, all this soul-searching across the board seems like a great opportunity to be more precise with our language and avoid misunderstandings--both internally and outwardly.