Medical Science Liaison Basics

Medical Science Liaisons: An Overview

First Published 2001 by Jane Chin, PhD.

Medical science liaison programs are expanding in today’s biopharmaceutical industry. This overview examines key roles of a medical science liaison.

Medical science liaisons are therapeutic specialists with advanced scientific training and degrees in life sciences (doctorates, advanced professional healthcare degrees, or masters in science). Majority of medical science liaisons currently in industry are Doctors of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.), with a smaller percentage holding Ph.D. or M.D. degrees. While many pharmaceutical companies require advanced degrees, healthcare professionals without an advanced scientific degrees but have extensive industry experience in a given therapeutic area are often considered. Excellent scientific aptitude is critical to productive interactions between medical science liaisons and thought leaders who are research pioneers and authorities in a therapeutic field.

Medical science liaison programs have an integral place in the life-cycle development of a product within a therapeutic area. Medical science liaisons are critical in the positive positioning of a company’s therapeutic capability in a given geography at a given product life cycle. Positive positioning at the pre- and post-launch phase of a product is the top priority of medical science liaisons and is achieved through sustained interactions with thought leaders. The establishment of trust in a medical science liaison-thought leader relationship results from consistent demonstration of scientific expertise and satisfactory follow-through to requests from thought leaders.

Medical science liaisons have other responsibilities within the organization, and interact with other functioning teams. However, the top priority of a medical science liaison is cultivating thought leader relationships. Medical science liaisons actively engage in activities that support the strategic direction of a product. Therefore, medical science liaisons are exposed to key decision makers both within the organization and outside the company. As catalysts of collaboration between pharmaceutical companies and thought leaders, medical science liaisons are essential conduits to the quality and success of transmission of timely information, research resources, and business intelligence.

Prominent field-based medical programs are implemented in most pharmaceutical companies. Many biotechnology firms also employ medical science liaisons as key sources of contact with thought leaders for a therapeutic area. In a 1999 survey, medical science liaison groups were reported to be present in more than half of the 58 responding pharmaceutical and biotechnology organizations (Morgan et al). Some biotechnology ventures implement medical science liaison programs before the establishment of formal sales forces, particularly those companies with products still in clinical trials and not yet commercially available. This underscores the primary role of a medical science liaison to secure the company’s presence in the therapeutic market, and reinforces a demand for growth in field-based medical programs.

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Wanted: Relationship Capital. Seeking: Medical Science Liaisons

First Published 2001 by Jane Chin, PhD.

Medical science liaisons (MSL) have many aliases: medical science managers, regional scientific managers, medical information scientists, scientific liaisons. Whatever the alias, a medical science liaison’s critical function remains the same: establish trust and credibility from which research collaborations flourish.

Many Faces – One Critical Role

Research collaborations with principle investigators (also called “thought leaders” or “opinion leaders”) are as important to a drug company as drug development opportunities are important to a thought leader. This symbiotic collaboration strives toward an understanding of a disease state, dissection of the roles of classes of drug compounds in the treatment of a disease state, and ultimately contributing to the scientific body of evidence for a biological pathway. Since research investigators are widely disseminated, medical liaisons are thus distributed to serve as points-of-contact between scientific pioneers and industry.

Depending on the company, the medical science liaison group may be as few as a handful of individuals to a team of formidable size (over 50; some companies have over 200 MSLs across many franchises). As a result, geography differs from company to company, and so does the amount of traveling required for a liaison. All liaisons should expect to travel out of state at least a few times year – to attend medical meetings or company business meetings. Some liaisons are road warriors, traveling 80% or more.

The main focus of a medical science liaison’s responsibility is to facilitate and establish research opportunities between his company and a research investigator. A medical science liaison must therefore be able to (physically) get in front of a researcher, address questions on her company’s research goals and product pipeline, and have the capacity to provide necessary processes that a researcher needs to initiate collaboration. What makes a liaison more than mere “technical support” or even “super-rep” is his ability to engage in meaningful scientific discussions with the researcher, both about the disease state as well as on the scientific evidence available.

Medical science liaisons should engage in a peer-to-peer discussion with the investigator, to be able to challenge and cultivate scientific ideas in a discussion. While a medical science liaison does not solicit research ideas, she serves as a catalyst in generating research proposals with the researcher. Active scientific exchange leads to unearthing of questions and to research that remains to be done to elucidate pathways contributing to physiological phenomena.

What’s in a Degree?

An advanced-degree requirement (PhD, PharmD, MD) comes into play based on the previous paragraph. While a doctorate may not be an ironclad requirement, companies often set such requirements due to an increased likelihood for such liaisons to be perceived as scientifically credible by the medical community. In fact, for many companies, a doctorate has become an absolute requirement for a medical liaison position. This trend is unlikely to diminish particularly as the pool of medical liaison applicants is increasing.

Research and clinical training that are integral curriculum in obtaining an advanced degree confers to the liaison an ability to synthesize and comprehend scientific concepts, experimental design, and data. Often, liaisons with advanced degrees may speak from experience of the research work she or he has conducted in a particular field, and in doing so, adds value for the research investigator. A medical science liaison’s research background may not be the same as the therapeutic field he works in; however, his advanced scientific or medical training sets a foundation upon which knowledge from a different therapeutic field may be build.

Medical science liaisons also present – either formally or informally – to various decision makers in the medical and healthcare community. Some medical science liaisons have an added responsibility to give clinical presentations to managed care organizations, and almost all liaisons are expected to be well versed in their company’s pipeline portfolio and R&D (Research and Development) objectives. Medical science liaisons help answer questions and resolve research issues between an investigator and the company. Medical science liaisons may partake in the training process for divisions within the company (for instance, sales and marketing.) In essence, medical science liaisons are in front of both internal and external customers – and people skills are not surprisingly of critical importance.

Beyond “Smile Training”

Having “people skills” extends beyond the ability to smile and start a conversation. Medical science liaisons need to have characteristics inherent of various corporate “buzz words” prominent in large corporations. Medical science liaisons act as rainmakers, change agents, research scouts, and educational/information resources. Being field-based, like other field-based personnel, means medical science liaisons must possess a level of emotional maturity and motivation that are critical for long-term success.

Medical science liaisons are manager-level positions. Even though medical science liaisons do not have direct reports whom they manage, liaisons continually manage all research progresses within their geography, and must continually stay abreast of the latest research developments in that scientific area. Medical science liaisons may report either to a senior manager, an associate director, or a director of a division specific for research (be this scientific/medical affairs, clinical affairs, or R&D.) Medical science liaisons do not have incentives tied to market share of a particular product, as medical science liaisons are expected to communicate with scientific fair balance.

It’s Always (and Should Be) Personal

Prospecting medical science liaison must consider this career path very carefully. Alongside its rewards, this career is not without stress and loneliness and frustration.

In fact, prospective candidates may try writing a “personal statement”, to answer the following questions: “Why I choose to be a MSL, what’s in it for me? Have I researched other career options in the pharmaceutical industry? Where do I see myself three-to-five years from now – on this path or doing something else?” Prospective MSLs need to know their personal motivations, whether they may simply want to get into industry, whether they see a MSL career as a stepping-stone to another career in the future. Whatever it may be, prospective candidates must be clear with their own expectations, and be realistic about the job.

Why Medical Science Liaisons Lead to Clinical Trials Success


Emergence of MSLs as a Formidable Educational Force

By Jane Chin, Ph.D.

One of the difficulties for those prescribing new medicines is keeping up to date with the latest developments from the pharmaceutical industry. A good scientific understanding of how newer and more complex medicines work will be crucial to clinical outcomes. Furthermore, a channel must be established between healthcare providers at the cutting edge of medicine and the pharmaceutical companies keen on innovating at the cutting edge of a disease state.

MSLs serve to educate

In order to meet this demand for better scientific exchange between thought leaders and pharmaceutical companies, the role of the medical science liaison (MSL) has emerged over the last 40 years and continues to evolve in the pharmaceutical industry. Medical science liaisons often have doctoral degrees (Ph.D., M.D., Pharm.D.), with extensive clinical research background in the therapeutic area they support.

Medical science liaisons facilitate collaborative research efforts between thought leaders (also called key opinion leaders, or KOLs) and the company and provide scientific information to healthcare professionals. Thought leaders are becoming increasingly difficult to engage, and medical science liaisons have been successful in involving top-tier thought leaders in peer-to-peer discussions regarding therapeutic strategies and in the identification of clinical research opportunities. The role of MSLs is very much a scientific one and should not be confused with the role of the sales representative.

Field-based medical programs are expanding in the biopharmaceutical industry. In the past, the field-based medical program and its constituents, the medical science liaison (MSL), are well entrenched in large pharmaceutical companies. Now, biotechnology firms and mid-sized pharmaceutical companies are establishing medical liaison teams for pre-launch support and field-based activities in product life cycle management. Some device and diagnostic companies are also experimenting with the field-based medical science liaison concept.

MSLs provide value

Successful medical science liaisons foster productive relationships with key opinion leaders through a consultative approach. Thought-leader development can encompass skills ranging from evaluating research sites, facilitating research proposals, presenting clinical data, moderating expert forums (“advisory boards”), and training physician speakers.

Medical science liaisons are also potentially exposed to situations involving ethical considerations, and ethical training is a crucial component of a productive tenure. As the pharmaceutical market internationalizes the ethics training must be global in its nature. Furthermore, as the regulatory environment is a dynamic one, customized training specific to the liaison role is beneficial for both new and seasoned medical liaisons.

The future is MSL

In the current market environment where healthcare professionals and patients both want reassurance concerning the pharmaceutical industry’s products, the role of the MSL has become increasingly crucial. Technical and commercial skills help the pharmaceutical industry bring its products to the market, but once launched, pharmaceutical companies cannot succeed in the long-term without continued and productive dialog with thought leaders who shape the standards of healthcare and research at the cutting edge of medicine.

MSLs originated in the United States, the world's biggest pharmaceutical market, but as the industry globalizes, MSL programs are also beginning to take root in countries outside the United States. MSLs therefore have become a formidable educational force in the pharmaceutical industry, and the profession will only become increasingly important in the face of complex treatment paradigms.

Why Can't HR "Understand" Medical Science Liaisons?

By Jane Chin, Ph.D.

Recently an experienced MSL was interviewing for a job, and was infuriated when a HR (human resources) staff asked what seemed to the candidate to be an outrageous question: how would the candidate approach doctors to educate them about the company’s drug? Since the drug is still investigational and therefore in “peri-label” status, the candidate viewed this as an affront to the most basic tenet of MSL compliance: no promoting drugs off-label including non-label-related off-label. The candidate expressed this concern to the hiring manager, who offered reassurance that the company intends on properly deploying the MSL function.

Human resources catch a lot of flak and bear the brunt of criticism with MSL hiring. I understand how it can be frustrating both to MSL directors and to MSLs themselves when HR can’t seem to “get” that field-science aren’t the same as field-sales. But seriously, those of us who work in this field can’t even agree most of the time how and when MSLs “should” be used, and we continually debate over “how gray is too gray”. We can’t expect HR to always “get” what many of us are still trying to get.

We can help HR with the basics though, including how we want questions phrased. In the prior example, perhaps the question may be framed with the premise that the MSL is already in an interaction with the physician based on a legitimate and documented need. I suspect the intent behind the original question relates to the communication style of the candidate and how the candidate may adapt to a specific situation.

You may even want to help your HR staff by letting them know which words may trigger hyper-vigilant responses in MSL candidates. Some MSLs don’t like such phrases as “increase physician access” or “help out sales colleagues”; make sure your HR staff knows not to use these terms unless these are actual company directives.

So construct the specificity of the situation – was the physician concerned about a specific side effect of the product? Did the physician want to propose a study idea to the company? Was the physician unhappy with the outcome of a recent study proposal to the company? Any of these situations allows the candidate to demonstrate aptitude in managing a thought leader relationship without getting caught up in an unintended compliance issue that detracts the candidate from the actual question and injects concern into the candidate’s mind about whether the company is using the MSL function inappropriately.

Companies are big on crossfunctional team work; let’s include HR as one of those team functions we work well with.

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