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Pharma Marketers’ Blog: Is It Time to Rethink Expert Engagement?

Authored by Maxine Smith, Managing Director, Uptake Strategies for the PME Pharma Marketers’ Blog

In this article, Maxine notes that the pharma industry doesn’t work in isolation. Various external stakeholders and experts are involved all the way through the life cycle of medicine. Maxine highlights that, given the critical nature of our relationship with experts, now is the time to reflect and regroup on expert relationships and what they could look like over the next couple of years.

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We need that different viewpoint, that critical thinking, that guidance to help keep us challenged, focused and relevant


KOL, KEE, EE, TAE, TL: what do all of these abbreviations have in common? The observant among you will notice these are not commonly used texting abbreviations but are ever present in the world of healthcare. In fact, they are all ways to describe the experts we choose to work with to strengthen our clinical, strategic and executional pharmaceutical endeavours.

Ours is an industry that doesn’t work in isolation. We bring in different external stakeholders and experts all the way through the life cycle of a medicine. We need that different viewpoint, that critical thinking, that guidance to help keep us challenged, focused and relevant.

The face of experts has changed over the years, but it has been a slow process. Many companies now have patients involved to help shape clinical trial design and consider all the stages from a patient’s point of view. One of our earlier blogs looked at ways we could engage with the voices of patients and learn from their experiences and expertise. The concept of engaging with payer and access groups is now also a commonplace activity for all teams. Together with clinical experts (physicians, specialist nurses, pharmacists etc) they form the ‘go to’ group of experts – people we call on routinely to provide their expert opinion.

I think, given the critical nature of our relationship with experts, that now is the time to pause, reflect and regroup on expert relationships and what these could look like over the next couple of years.

1. Who are the experts?

Experts have traditionally been selected from an exclusive group of healthcare professionals of a certain seniority or above, extensively published and integrally involved in clinical trials. I would not like to suggest even for a moment that the expert opinions of this group are no longer valid; they are absolutely still needed. But increasingly they cannot help us with the questions to which we are seeking answers.

We need again to refer back to our earlier patient-centric blog and use one of the key competencies ie, looking across the full patient experience with their disease and reflecting on the different types of people, jobs and professions patients interact with through their disease journey. These will include families, friends, carers, employers, colleagues, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, homecare companies and their staff, disease support groups (online and in person), healthcare managers, insurers, budget holders, risk managers, guidelines committees, multidisciplinary teams, technology and social media companies and so many more. Our starting point for our rethink has to be to map out other influential stakeholders.

2. How do we decide who can help us?

From that very long list, how do we decide who the right experts are to engage with? Our advice is always to define the problem you are trying to solve first and then to decide which experts are best placed to provide their input. It is all too easy to default to the same expert group or panel where the relationship is established and the contracts are in place, but this level of comfort won’t always help us address the critical questions. A client recently had feedback from the customer-facing team that they really wanted to work to expand the pool from which ‘KOLs’ were sourced. The team were increasingly finding that the experts consulted didn’t include clinicians who were actually seeing patients regularly or involved in MDT decisions around treatment. Therefore, it was very hard for the experts to advise the company on what was happening in the real world. We need to match the expert advice to the problem.

3. How can we get more from experts?

By now we have defined our problem and discussed the range of potential experts to involve, but what else can we consider in order to maximise interactions? The first suggestion is to bring together a cross-functional group of experts connected to the problem. None of us makes decisions in isolation and it is very rare these days to work solely with colleagues who do exactly the same role as you. By basing expert selection on the problem, we can integrate experts from diverse fields who will approach the problem in a very different way, particularly if they are not entrenched in healthcare.

Some last tips:
  • Consider the life cycle stage of the brand. Early launch brands will need a very different set of experts sharing their views to that of a mature brand that is close to patent expiry. Make sure your expert sources evolve accordingly
  • Look beyond the healthcare and pharma experts and consider which other groups could potentially be valuable, eg health social media stars, bloggers, activists for healthcare change, tech companies, well-being organisations and more.

If we start to follow this approach for a rethink, we are GTG to build some very informative and fresh relationships in the next couple of years (without a FOMO) as we find the time to give KOLs some TLC. TTFN!

Abbreviations used: Key Opinion Leader, Key External Expert, External Expert, Therapy Area Expert, Thought Leader, Good To Go, Fear Of Missing Out, Tender Loving Care, Ta Ta for now

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