November 6, 2019

Optimising the Performance and Value of MSL Teams Amidst Rapid Change

Until recently, Medical Affairs as a functional area was relatively under-developed among pharmaceutical companies operating throughout the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region and was often referred to as Medical Marketing. However, there has been an evolution of the function in many advanced markets, and reliance on medical science liaisons (MSLs), which is a main division of Medical Affairs, is growing quickly in Japan where the number of MSLs increased by 23% in 2017-18. This is happening in response to transformative change in the life sciences industry globally, as the era of blockbuster drugs comes to an end. New drugs are now being targeted at niche and rare diseases where the unmet needs are high and the medical science is often both ground-breaking and complex. Treatment decisions are now being made by multiple stakeholders driven by national health system demand for economic, societal and cost benefits. Patient centricity is fast becoming one of the essential considerations for the future success of new drugs and biopharmaceutical company growth.


Furthermore, governments worldwide are placing stringent restrictions on the traditional pharmaceutical sales representative business model and how they function. Japan is no exception and in fact, the country’s Medical Affairs organizations are faced with some unique
challenges. For example, the Japan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association has adopted stringent promotional guidelines that currently do not distinguish between the activities of MSLs and medical representatives (MRs). Medical institutions are doing the same, and Japans’ Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (MHLW) has launched third-party monitoring systems.

This has shifted the focus to the MSL function, which now has a pivotal role at the forefront of these changes. The traditional role of Medical Affairs was to be a communicator of data, to “assess and react.” This has evolved more recently to “anticipate and inform,” with an emphasis on collecting and leveraging medical insights collected by field medical teams.


Now, the goal for the next generation of Medical Affairs is to ‘Shape and Transform’ through their engagement with new and broader stakeholder groups who want in-depth discussions on complex science, as well as information about economic benefits and innovative solutions for their patients.

Being an MSL in this new era is requiring medical engagement beyond physicians and KOLs to payers and even advocacy organizations and patients. It also means that in addition to specific disease-area expertise, expectations are building for MSLs to be knowledgeable about topics such as managed markets and the medical ecosystem in which they operate, to possess the communications skills needed to engage effectively with a wide variety of customers and to understand both the patient and physician’s journey. The requirement for MSLs to be credible ambassadors for scientific collaborations with therapeutic area experts and external scientific organizations, and a facilitator of disease awareness initiatives and related scientific exchange governed by professional trust, is close to being mandatory rather than voluntary.

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