Friday, July 6, 2012

Topic4: Key Opinion Leaders – Introduction

Educating the healthcare community on new information is both an obligation of and an important benefit for a pharmaceutical company.  Impacting the knowledge of the healthcare community may be the single most valuable service that a medical affairs organization offers.

As much as a medical affairs organization may wish to educate all healthcare providers, the reality is that resources are always limited.  Given limited resources, most organizations look to educate people who will go on to share that education with others.

The fact is that healthcare providers, like almost all specialized professions, have strong formal and informal networks.  These networks may be directly associated with their institution, like a hospital, or indirectly formed by friends and mentors developed over many years.  These formal and informal networks exist because they are valuable to the members of the network.  That value takes many forms – from help with personal job searches, to patient referrals across geographies.  One value that these networks provide is supporting the group’s knowledge on their specific specialty.  If one member of the network discovers something of value concerning their specialty, they will very often share it with others within the network.   These formal and informal networks provide a multiplier effect for education – educating the right person in a network can result in multiple members of the network benefiting from the same information.

Medical affairs organizations tap into this network capability to multiply the impact of their limited resources.  Medical affairs organization look for individuals who serve as information “hubs” in their formal and informal network and apply their education efforts to those individuals, expecting that the information will then be conveyed out to the “spokes”.  As a short hand, many organizations use the term Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) for those individuals who serve as information “hubs” of their formal and informal networks.  The term stems from the fact that others in their network value the KOLs opinion that a piece of new information is worth knowing.  Other terms for these individuals include Thought Leaders, Subject Matter Experts, Scientific Community Leaders, etc.  For simplicity sake, I will use the term KOLs.

Like everything in medical affairs, educating KOLs is rife with compliance concerns.  These concerns primarily hinge on the difference between education and promotion.  The way I like to describe it is:

Education (or scientific communication) is focused on presenting valuable information to healthcare providers to ensure that they are aware of the latest scientific information.

Promotion is encouraging a healthcare provider to use a given treatment.

Most organizations would cite disease state education as a clear example of the difference.  Disease state education is focused on the disease state in general and not on any particular treatment.  Therefore it is education focused not promotional focused.

Where things start getting “trickier” is around product-specific education.  Some organizations allow it and some do not.  For more in depth discussion on this topic, see this post.

Regardless of where your organization lands on the education question, there are a number of best practices that any organization that educates KOLs should be using.  I will discuss them further in the following posts:

As always, I am curious to know your opinion.  How would you describe pharma’s efforts to educate KOLs?  Leave your comments below.

Legal Note:  All information and interpretations presented are only the opinion of the author(s) who are not lawyers. And, even if we were lawyers, given the wide range of interpretations of the current regulations you would still need to get the input from your own compliance organization.  Simply put – your mileage may vary.


  1. [...] importance of KOLs in achieving medical affair’s goals was discussed in the Introduction.  Left open was the question of how are these KOLs identified.  There are a number of different [...]

  2. [...] to look over some of our archives.  We have discussed a range of topics including MSL proactivity, KOL identification, MedComm/SciComm groups, MA at Product Launch, Global MA and MA’s Relationship with [...]

  3. [...] look over some of our archives.  We have discussed a range of topics including MSL proactivity, KOL identification, MedComm/SciComm groups, MA at Product Launch, Global MA and MA’s Relationship with [...]


Please leave your thoughts as well as suggestions for other topics.