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The future direction of the MSL

At the beginning of the new year, we start the planning and goal setting processes within the pharmaceutical industry. As an MSL you may wonder: What do I want to achieve in my role this year? How can I improve personally, and have a wider impact within the organisation? Where is my career heading

and how can I shape it? As an aspiring MSL, you may go through a similar thought process with an ultimate goal of landing that first MSL job. Good planning can help us formulate our objectives, make smart decisions, and keep us focused. Unpredicted factors, however, might change our path altogether bringing new opportunities: only a few years ago, we could not imagine using virtual tools as our main means of communication. As a result of COVID, we became hybrid working specialists overnight and a pharmaceutical industry success story. While the MSL role has significantly evolved over the last few years, there is undoubtedly more change to come in the near future.

MSL role expansion

Traditionally, MSLs would come into industry with a strong scientific background, such as a PhD. As medical affairs function evolves, the demand for a more diverse MSL background is emerging and the focus may no longer be entirely on educational background but on new skills and experiences that MSLs can share. This may not be limited to skills acquired while working within different functions of pharmaceutical industry but also outside of it. In short, the recruitment process may fixate less on the degree and instead focus on what the candidate can bring to the organisation. For example, with the growth of artificial intelligence, ability to manipulate data, familiarity with modern methods of data analytics and overall knowledge in advanced data science may become an attractive skill sought after by employers.

Some roles in medical affairs will likely shift from being scientific specialists to data communication, generation, and analytic experts within the industry. With the increasing appetite for diverse experiences, preference may also shift from MSLs that specialise in one therapy area over a long period of time to those who have transitioned through multiple therapy areas and are able to demonstrate learning agility and easily adapt to change.

In the past, field medical teams would mainly communicate in person. However, with accelerated expansion of virtual communications during the COVID pandemic we discovered the benefits of virtual engagements. They provide time savings for many, enable quicker communications with more people, and allow us to work from any location. Despite this, we experienced screen fatigue, struggled to establish new relationships, and could not replicate scientific exchange virtually with big audiences. As a result of combining both virtual and in person communication methods, a hybrid field medical way of working emerged post-COVID.

Virtual meetings continue on a one-to-one basis, while in person meetings are usually reserved for a larger audience, new relationship building or simply those specifically asking to meet in the ‘real world’. Integration of virtual tools provides us with unlimited opportunities that are leading to the emergence of new MSL capabilities and even roles: what do you think of a ‘real time’ MSL available at any time without a need for booked appointments? Furthermore, virtual presence enables us to reach distant locations just from our computer screen. With ever increasing demand for the MSL role, and expansion of digital technologies, it is not unlikely that MSLs will cover larger territories (even whole countries).

Internal partner

Within pharmaceutical organisations, the MSL role is shifting from what was traditionally seen as a reactive support function to a proactive and strategic business partner. MSLs are now commonly perceived as integral members of a cross functional team responsible for shaping the therapeutic strategy of the organisation. The newly emerged centrality of the MSL role reflects the ability to adapt, engage at multiple levels, collaborate with any function within the pharmaceutical industry, and establish partnerships. An insightful knowledge of the external environment places the MSLs in a position where they can generate novel ideas and solutions that are reflective of a healthcare community’s needs; helping to shape the healthcare of patients as well as the future strategy and tactics of pharmaceutical organisations. The importance of the MSL role has been brought into the spotlight during the COVID pandemic, where MSLs remained primary contacts for many healthcare professionals. MSLs demonstrated their ability to design, develop, execute, and report the value of impactful medical projects. As a result, there is more encouragement from employers to develop and utilise the entrepreneurial skills, with business acumen likely to become a common competency area for MSLs.

External partner

Being an effective external partner requires not only the traditional reactive approach but a growing desire for compliant methods of being proactive to meet unmet scientific need. Such a shift will further nurture MSL ability to act as an expert of the external environment and make a difference to personal and public health. Proactivity comes with the need to demonstrate the intent of the activity, clearly labelling it and understanding how it might be perceived, and some organisations are likely to enable such activity within their strategic frame.

It is possible that we will observe a move from current MSL performance management to rewarding entrepreneurial skills by giving MSLs more ownership and opportunities to innovate and create external solutions. MSL focus will likely shift from predominantly key opinion or thought leaders to the wider healthcare community involved in patient management, with a goal of a broader impact ultimately changing population health.

The future MSL has a clear strategy on improving patient health, is action orientated, can self-reflect, and knows the exact value he or she brings. MSLs/MSL Managers now have a perfect opportunity to stand up as medical leaders and shape the development of value metrics, by taking ownership of measuring their activities and the impact they have within the organisation as well as across patient populations. Traditional measures, such as interaction or insight numbers, are slowly losing their credibility and there is a need for more significant and reflective methods of demonstrating the success of field (or hybrid) medical.

As a future MSL, stay inquisitive, love the science, and keep caring about patients. Try to gauge your purpose as an MSL by connecting your activities with strategy and patient outcomes. The sense of meaning makes a huge difference! What impact can you have?

We would like to thank keynote speakers who presented their thoughts on the topic of ‘future MSL direction’ at the annual MSLA conference in September 2022, which this blog post is based on.

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