In July, Amgen’s Europe Medical Affairs team released results of a survey based on opinions of 441 healthcare providers (HCPs), detailing preferences for interactions with Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) in light of COVID-19. Survey highlights include the following:
- 62% of HCPs prefer monthly or bimonthly interactions with MSLs
- 80% of HCPs find the most value in scientific discussions and data
- Almost half of HCPs give equal preference to face-to-face and virtual interactions, while the other half continue to prefer face-to-face interactions
- Only 8% of HCPs prefer or highly prefer virtual interactions only.
Here the Medical Affairs Professional Society (MAPS) speaks with Vice President of Amgen Europe Medical Affairs, Isma Benattia, about this survey and wider changes in the way MSLs work with their HCP peers during the pandemic and beyond.
MAPS: It seems like HCPs might have “pushed pause” on MSL interactions during the pandemic, but your survey shows almost the opposite, with majority of HCPs preferring fairly frequent interactions with MSLs. Did this surprise you?
Isma Benattia: We talk a lot about patient isolation, but we haven’t talked much about HCP isolation. Most of these physicians who don’t work in critical care were staying at home like everyone else. Among the very first interactions available were those with MSLs, using digital platforms, and I think it helped bring a sense of normalcy to physicians. Our survey results reflect the emotional experience as well. If HCPs want to maintain this frequent interaction, it means there must be some benefit in it for them – a need for this trusted interaction and source of information to take place.
MAPS: And you show the content of this need, as well, namely HCPs’ strong preference for scientific discussion and data.
Isma Benattia: The survey clearly indicated that physicians, even in the middle of this crisis, are always receptive to science and new information (not only related to COVID-19). MSLs play an important role in delivering this information. We are a source of innovation and scientific data. We are advancing the science together with the HCPs. It’s amazing how the collaboration efforts are happening. I see a great opportunity for MSLs to disseminate new knowledge and new science. After all, both the HCPs and the MSLs share the same objective – to serve patients.
MAPS: Of course, how MSLs disseminate knowledge is changing…
Isma Benattia: I was talking with a team member recently about digital strategy and he said: “It’s not a “digital strategy,” it’s the strategy for navigating in the digital world”. There is a big difference – not just equipping our teams with the right technology, but also being skilled and comfortable in communicating virtually. Technology is ready; I don’t think we’re as ready as the technology. The big challenge for us as an industry is not only to use digital platforms, but to adapt our content and its delivery appropriately. One cannot simply use a traditional slide deck! So, what other impactful channels can one use? That’s what MSLs need to learn to master.
MAPS: And how can MSLs go about this learning?
Isma Benattia: When I have a question or an issue, I call someone from our IT team – let’s call him “Bill”. That’s what MSLs need – their own “Bill”! A big part of the skills needed for digital transformation are different than the classical profile of an MSL. While I think technical training is important, you do not need to develop these skills; you can add (hire) these capabilities by adding new people who already possess the knowledge, working to support MSLs or, really, any of the Medical Affairs functions. Technology expertise doesn’t have to be a core competency for individual MSLs, but it needs to be a core capability for a Medical Affairs function. The combination of MSLs supported by new roles specializing in technology-based communication is absolutely fascinating.
MAPS: And Healthcare Providers, as well, have differing comfort levels with these technologies…
Isma Benattia: Yes, a video conference is very different from face-to-face interactions. I am also aware that some physicians in other regions of the world are eager to communicate via Whatsapp. I think we have an opportunity to make HCP interactions individualized, personalized, tailored experiences. For example, utilizing different HCP learning styles. We want to believe in the old model of slide decks and the idea that more information is better, but we need to understand individual HCP needs, preferences and expectations. One may be interested in reading an article, watching a short video, or listening to a podcast. I’m always amazed to see how much learning there is every day via all these channels.
MAPS: It sounds like you see a promising future.
Benattia: The digital model in general is a fantastic opportunity for our industry. Just look at the unprecedented attendance of virtual congresses! From a science dissemination point of view, what we can do digitally is just remarkable. Now you can get access to information when and how you want to absorb it. The question is what’s next.
MAPS: So…what’s next?
Isma Benattia: In my personal experience, even before COVID-19, I was trying to convince my teams that a multi-channel approach was the way to go and that we needed to start moving to a digital platform. Then everybody was forced to move 100% digital. And now, as you can see in this survey, HCPs see the future as a combination of the two – they’ve made this shift to a 50/50 model that combines face-to-face with virtual interactions. But we can’t forget that we’re still human beings and we like to see each other. It’s important to know the option of face-to-face still exists. I really doubt we will ever go back to pre-COVID-19 ways of doing things, but in the future, maybe this 50/50 model will be a standard.
MAPS: So, you see these changes as enduring, not just temporary adjustments?
Isma Benattia: Things are changing – our industry is changing – and the transformation is underway. COVID-19 acted as a catalyst for this transformation not just in HCP-MSL interactions and not just in Medical Affairs, but in the overall healthcare ecosystem. We saw this in our survey as well: HCPs now see virtual interactions and telehealth as essential pieces of the care delivery model. Patients like it, physicians like it – and it works. We also see a new appreciation for and emphasis on healthcare at a societal level. Before the pandemic, healthcare was deprioritized and this crisis shows that fundamentally health is a value that governments need to invest in, both on the preventive and also the therapeutic sides. In all these settings, MSLs have an important role as trusted sources of information on products, that connect internal and external interested parties. The challenge is and will continue to be about finding the balance between the traditional model of face-to-face interactions; in establishing a new model requiring competencies that mixes the traditional model with innovative, personalized, technology-driven ways to connect MSLs with HCPs in what is truly a new cultural, societal and healthcare landscape.