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Medical Science Liaisons (or better known as "MSLs") are therapeutic area (TA) specialists with an advanced scientific background. They are trained experts in communicating complex scientific and medical information to a variety of stakeholders.

MSLs were first established by Upjohn Pharmaceuticals in 1967, trademarked as "Education services". They recognised that sales representatives with scientific background were getting more face-time with the Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), which was essential to build rapport with KOLs in various TAs.

Today, there is a plethora of names for the role including Medical Liaisons, Scientific Managers, Clinical Liaisons, and Scientific Affairs Specialists, among others. They are the face of an organisation, providing a credible link to external stakeholders, helping bridge the communication between clinical development and commercial success. Importantly, MSLs are in a unique position to gather insights that inform the organisation about business strategy in areas such as product development and market access.

Purple branch: Roles

The primary role of an MSL is to identify, build, foster (engage) and manage strong relationships with KOLs in their shared TA. Other roles include: hosting advisory board meetings to identify knowledge gaps in a particular TA, responding to unsolicited requests for clinical/scientific information of a specific TA or medicine, keeping abreast of the latest research and new developments in their area of expertise, have a clear understanding of the TA, clinical research process, including product development, clinical trials, and approval for consulting.

Green branch: Skills

The MSL role is varied that can require to work with cross-functional teams and hence they need to be skilled. They use interpersonal, and communication skills to create value for stakeholders, which requires a number sub-skills such as confidence, optimism, time management, organised, knowledgeable, love for learning and must possess a growth mindset. Lastly, business acumen is crucial to add value to stakeholders and to determine and implement tactics.

Light blue branch: Abilities (Competencies and Activities)

Competencies and Activities are extremely important to execute deliverables successfully and to assess performance, especially in a customer-facing role such as the MSL. Because they consult with many different stakeholders as part of their job, impactful communications and high emotional intelligence is pivotal. MSLs must be expert storytellers who can tailor their message for a given audience while presenting complex material clearly and consistently. Understanding the needs of a KOL, being a scientific expert and persuasive and be able to execute optimally are other vital competencies of a successful MSL.

Core activities of an MSL involve educating HCPs and KOLs, providing scientific and clinical research support, attending TA specific medical conferences, presenting scientific and clinical data at unsolicited events/meetings, and mentoring and training internal stakeholders across cross-functional teams.

Red branch: Collaborations

In the MSL world, cross-functional collaboration can happen between different functions within the pharmaceutical organisation. Some of the teams that an MSL can collaborate are:

  • Medical information team – help with answering medical inquiries from HCPs and KOLs.

  • Regulatory team – provide scientific expertise to assist with getting a medicine registered.

  • Marketing team – understand the overall commercial and marketing strategy to ensure consistent and accurate messaging.

  • CRA, CTA and HCPs – to have a clear understanding of the clinical research and trials process.

  • Pharmacovigilance team – reporting of (serious) adverse events to this team.

  • Training department – develop training materials to educate internal stakeholders.

Grey branch: Traits

There are many key factors for success in an MSL role, but the one trait that deserves the most pinnacle position would be the attitude. This further can be channelled into integrity, more specifically patient integrity, flexibility, adaptability, perspective, understanding towards better patient outcomes and solution-driven. Since MSLs generate and disseminate complex scientific information, another key trait would be an excellent communicator and active listener. Lastly, a good MSL is a valuable asset, and to retain them; they need specific skills and opportunities for career growth.

Blue branch: Career progression

In terms of career progression, the first step of the ladder is a senior MSL which could involve higher-profile projects and a pay rise. The next one is a medical/scientific advisor, which is a middle-of-the-road position that many MSLs may consider moving into. Following this is the medical/MSL manager involving managing a team of MSLs. And finally associate director and director whose main job is to ensure that everyone in the group is up-to-date in their assigned therapeutic area and aligned to the company's brand and medical strategy.

Orange branch: Expectations

Since MSLs are a rare breed, they are always in the spotlight to meet the changing expectations from both, the organisation and HCPs. One of the key expectation from an MSL is understanding the role and its responsibilities that entails fulfilling duties set out by the manager and, activity metrics and KPI. Value is a two-way street, where the MSLs should value their organisation and vice-versa. Other expectations include expanding skill-sets for personal and organisation's development which in turn helps in providing ethical and unbiased scientific information to the stakeholders. Lastly, travel is a 'must' expectation due to the nature of the job being field-based.

Pink branch: Challenges

MSLs face several challenges that continue to reshape their role. Being a clear communicator can be a challenge for some MSLs and is based on different facets such as influencing, responsiveness, analytic thinking and emotional intelligence. Clear communicators are proactive and build creative and diverse partnerships because they are good listeners in capturing rich and valuable information.

Brown branch: Responsibilities

MSLs no longer plays behind the scenes, supportive role, but rather is the driver of all external stakeholder engagement. A paramount responsibility is to collaborate and build relationships with KOLs for peer to peer interactions and insight integration. In addition, other responsibilities include being up to date with the current clinical trials, product development and competitors, clinical research engagement (IITs), constant learning, and after that educating stakeholders.

In conclusion, MSLs can build engagement across multiple stakeholders helping pharmaceutical organisations address constraints and challenges to gain and sustain optimal patient access to medicines – to bridge the gap between clinical development and commercial success.


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