What are the greatest challenges of being new to the MSL role?

The answer to this question will be somewhat different for each MSL depending on their background and what therapeutic area they are entering. Three broad areas that need developed are compliance, knowledge of the therapeutic area, and social skills. The one I feel is most important, compliance, is likely the one that new MSLs will have the least experience in. Having spent some time in R&D in a biotech company prior to becoming an MSL, I had some exposure to a regulated environment in a lab setting. The transition into the MSL role required an awareness of regulations and compliance at all times, even in seemingly casual conversations, which is a significant departure from many other working environments outside of medical affairs.

What can new MSLs do to ensure successful KOL relationships?

A simple approach is to remember that KOLs are people too. They tend to be very busy people and their time is valuable, so the MSL needs to demonstrate that they are bringing value to the relationship so that it is worth the KOL’s time to meet with you. Any instance where we are asking for another person’s time, we should remember to think about what is in it for them. Each KOL is an individual, so each situation will have to be approached differently. Some KOLs want to share what they know, some want updates from the company or the field in general, others may want to discuss research they are conducting, and others may have other varying interests. It is our responsibility to identify their needs and wants either before or during our first meeting and fill those needs the best we can. They will also have varying communication styles. Some will want to do all of the talking and teach you what they know, while others may stick to very short answers and require thoughtful questions from the MSL to gather the information we are looking for. MSLs can work on developing qualities that will help all of their interactions with KOLs, such as acquiring a deep knowledge of their therapeutic area, working on active listening skills, and consistently following up with requests in a timely manner. After these skills are developed, they can be tweaked to fit each situation based on the preference of each KOL.

How can new MSLs develop the diverse skills needed in the role?

Like many things in life, the key here is to put in the time and effort to develop the necessary skills. This is a case where the approach is simple, but not easy. Again, it comes back to compliance, therapeutic area knowledge, and social skills. Compliance requires a certain level of knowledge so you know what regulations must be followed, and this can be acquired by studying the regulations until you are comfortable with them. Compliance also requires constant vigilance to make sure your words and actions fall within the regulations. This aspect can be developed by remaining consistently mindful of the way we communicate our thoughts in all areas of our life. If we make this type of communication a habit, we will be far less likely to make an off-the-cuff comment that may not be compliant. Therapeutic area knowledge can be attained by studying existing material and consistently monitoring scientific literature to maintain current knowledge in the field. Many people will have different learning styles, and the level of effort will vary for each of us, but we all have to do the necessary work to become experts in our field. Social skills are also imperative for any MSL and each of us come in with varying levels of competence. Regardless of our initial level, social skills can also be learned and practiced both at work and in other areas of life. Some companies offer training for social skills and others may not, but plenty of resources, such as books and online courses, are available for anyone to pursue individually outside of work. Each of these areas is important to develop and not conceptually difficult to achieve, but each requires an MSL to have the necessary motivation to identify where they can improve and then do the work to make that improvement.

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