The medical affairs director needed me to find the right kind of talent for a specialized field medical role: a medical science liaison (MSL). A key phrase he repeatedly used has since come up in the subsequent discussions I’ve had with medical affairs professionals looking for great talent for their teams: “scientific credibility.”
Of course, scientific credibility has always been an important aspect of the interactions between pharmaceutical company employees and health-care providers (HCPs). However, the reason why we have heard this term so much recently, one industry expert commented, is because companies are now operating in an environment where the promotion code is being interpreted very strictly, not only in terms of financial disclosure (e.g., the “Sunshine Laws”) but also quite specifically on how, and by whom, information can be shared.
The evolving needs of HCPs have been a main driver in creating this new environment. As one medical science liaison manager explained to me, HCPs nowadays are dealing with more and more niche therapies, and they have access to a lot of product information (e.g., through improvements in IT), so the information and guidance they require from manufacturers is becoming increasingly specialized. With this, they expect the company to provide “partners” with whom they can interact on more of a peer-level, discussing diseases and drugs. As medical representatives (MRs) find their interactions with key opinion leaders (KOLs) more limited, especially in terms of the information they are allowed to share, this is where the MSL brings value. An MSL with a medical license or doctorate degree can bring the required level of scientific credibility to partners effectively with an HCP.
It’s clear why companies need strong MSLs, but where to find the right people? The challenge that every hiring manager faces is the need for someone with the requisite scientific credibility who also has the “soft skills” of a commercially minded professional. I remember hearing the concern from one hiring manager that the young lady I’d introduced may be too academic. As he explained, it’s no use having an MSL with excellent scientific credentials if they can’t communicate effectively with HCPs, drive the business forward, and understand the importance of customer service.
In terms of mid-career MSL recruitment, we’ve seen a lot of hiring from competitors this year. Hiring managers have also been exploring other avenues to find or mold people with the right balance of skills. Some companies have explored academia, bearing in mind that these professionals will need subsequent development and may not transition smoothly into the business world. Other hiring managers have found talent within their existing employees, for example, MRs or marketing professionals with an MSc or PhD.
However, these alone cannot represent a sustainable, long-term strategy. A number of senior figures with whom I’ve spoken highlighted the need to promote the MSL as a career choice within the industry, academia, and even among undergraduate and postgraduate students. One MD suggested that Japan lacks the specifically designed courses balancing scientific education with a strong vocational element, which you find in other countries. If courses like this were offered, then future generations of MDs and PhDs may view the MSL role as a natural career choice.
One senior executive stated that he could see the pharmaceutical industry moving toward a more physician-led, or at least physician-inclusive, future. This would bring closer collaboration between HPCs and companies based on sound principles of scientific evidence, leading to greater patient benefit. The role of the MSL is an essential link in this model. To achieve this, the scientists and physicians of tomorrow need to be shown that a career in industry is open to them and is one of the most valid ways to make a great contribution to society.