How to Identify KOLs as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL)

Identifying KOLs is one of the most important roles of the MSL. When done right it leads to the development of relationships that benefit the pharmaceutical company and the KOLs. When done wrong, it is essentially a waste of time.

In this article, I’m going to teach you how to do it right.

An effective KOL map (list of KOLs) answers the questions: who should you be working with, what should you be doing with them, and why?

This article focuses on who you should be working with as an MSL.

Choosing and identifying the right KOLs can have a massive positive impact on the product you work on as an MSL and it also has a huge impact on the ability of the MSL to demonstrate their value to the pharmaceutical company.

What is KOL stakeholder mapping?

KOL stakeholder mapping is essentially a list of KOLs that are mapped according to their level of influence and their ability to help the pharma company achieve their strategic objectives.

It is important to note that the KOL list must be fit for purpose. That means, the medical affairs team must have a clear medical strategy and then identify KOLs who can assist in achieving the objectives the medical strategy is aiming to achieve.

If you are currently an MSL and asked to do stakeholder mapping, your response should be;

"no problem, what are we trying to achieve with these KOLs? I want to ensure I develop relationships with the right people that can help us execute the medical strategy"

This is a great way to demonstrate that you are a strategic thinker.

What to do when you inherit a KOL list

If you are an MSL and you have inherited a KOL list (which happens to every single MSL at some stage in their career, it has happened to me three times so far!) your response should be;

“great, I’d love to validate this list of KOLs before I start setting up meetings. What are we currently trying to achieve from working with KOLs?”

Validating a list of KOLs means identifying who should stay, who should go and who new should join the list to ensure that strategic objectives of the medical affairs team can be met.

How to find KOLs

A KOL is an influential person in a given therapeutic area. What exactly does influence mean when we talk about KOLs? Influence is a person or organisation who is seen as a an expert by their peers and so, if they say something people listen and their opinion can often influence other people’s opinions and other people's clinical practice.

For example, in the oncology space, if a certain a KOL has 20 plus years clinical experience, publishes three times a year in oncology high impact journals, is invited to speak at all the major oncology conferences and is regularly engaged by the minister for health for advice – they’re pretty influential.

For the purpose of this article KOL mapping will be performed for a respiratory drug, called Drug X that is being launched in Australia. Keep in mind that this process can be modified for any therapeutic area or country.

Focusing on our example of the respiratory drug, Drug X, the KOLs will be physicians who treat respiratory conditions and researchers in the respiratory field based in Australia. Clinicians can refer to specialists, GPs, nurses, or pharmacists.

The key stakeholder groups will be healthcare professional and consumer groups focused on raising awareness/advising on the treatment of respiratory disorders in Australia.

So where do you go to find these KOLs? Like all of life questions, the answers can be found on google. Of course, in the corporate world, google is referred to as desktop research.

Desktop research can be used to identify KOLs by answering these questions:

  • Question 1: Respiratory guidelines in Australia – who writes them?

  • Question 2: Respiratory conferences in Australia – who is invited to speak/chair sessions/convenes

  • Question 3: Respiratory conferences overseas – which Australian KOLs are invited to present?

  • Question 4: Respiratory publications – who writes them? Who conducts research in Australia?

  • Question 5: Media articles – who is quoted as an expert when it comes to respiratory disorders in Australia? (utilise the “news” search function on google)

Key stakeholder groups related to respiratory in Australia - who sits on the executive board? An example of a key stakeholder group is the Australian Respiratory Council, another key stakeholder would be national asthma council of Australia.

Want to learn more about typical MSL activities? Check out our MSL Upskill Package. A short, self-paced training course which will teach you everything you need to know about finding the right KOLs and planning KOL meetings.

How to calculate KOL influence

Once influential KOLs have been identified, the next step is to calculate which KOLs are the most influential. This is done by assigning points based on the answers to the previous questions.

If the KOL is;

  • Invited to speak at international relevant conferences : Assign 2 point

  • A board member of a key stakeholder group: Assign 2 points

  • Someone who writes relevant therapeutic guidelines/clinical guidelines: Assign 3 points

  • 1st or last author on relevant publications in last 5 years: Assign 1 point

  • Invited to speak at local relevant conferences: Assign 1 point

  • Quoted in relevant media articles/interviews: Assign 1 point

If a KOL scores over 6, they are highly influential. If they score under 6 they are still influential but deemed "rising stars".

How often should MSLs engage with their KOLs

As an MSL, your impact will be greatest when you focus on those highly influential KOLs (who scored over 6). So look at your list of KOLs who scored over 6 (it should be around 8 – 20 KOLs) and plan to develop a really strong relationship with those KOLs.

Understand their clinical experience with Drug X. Understand what motives them. Understand their personality preferences. Ideally with your highly influential KOLs you want to engage with them (this might be a 1:1 sit down meeting, it might be a 5 minute phone call, it might be an email exchange) at least once a month. Repetition builds rapport. This is called KOL engagement planning and each interaction with your KOL should be strategically aligned with your objectives.

If for example, one of your objectives is to increase the number of clinicians that can present at conferences and share their knowledge of Drug X, then every time you interact with a KOL, you want to educate them on Drug X, you want to understand which conferences they attend and what they like to present on in order to prepare them to be a speaker on Drug X.

How to manage KOLs who are rising stars?

On your KOL list, the less influential KOLs are what we call “rising stars”. A big mistake many pharmaceutical companies make is to ignore their rising stars and only try and engage them once they move up the influential ranks. Instead, as an MSL, you should recognise your rising stars and aim to interact with them once every 3 months. One interaction every quarter is enough to develop the relationship over time, educate them on the clinical data for Drug X and it is something your pharma company will really thank you for in years to come. Furthermore, developing your rising stars is something that really shows strategic intent and demonstrates that you are thinking ahead of what will benefit Drug X in the future.

In summary, KOL stakeholder mapping is one of the most important MSL activities.

It involves identifying who is influential and who can help achieve strategic objectives. Once you’ve identified who is influential, calculate who is the most influential and plan to engage theses KOLs at least once a month. For rising stars, (less influential KOLs), you will plan to engage these once a quarter.

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