How Medical Affairs Teams Can Boost Stakeholder Engagement

Encouraging stakeholder engagement is a worthy aspiration of any organization but it requires a carefully planned strategy that factors in continuous improvements. 

For pharma companies, the medical affairs (MA) teams are tasked with this important role. To succeed in improving engagement and communication with all the relevant stakeholders — both internal and external — MA teams not only have to adapt to digital processes, they need to drive a culture of collaboration.

We explore what the digital landscape means for MA teams and how they can maximize key partnerships with stakeholders.

Adapt to a Changing Role

Medical affairs teams will need to engage and support all stakeholders in strategic and innovative ways. That was the finding from a 2018 Syneos Health Trend Report, says Khalil Ahmed, VP of medical affairs for Europe at the global CRO. The MA team plays an important role in fostering these new styles of relationships. 

During drug launches, medical science liaisons (MSLs) are vital in providing educational resources to stakeholders. During pre-launch, they can make people aware of the disease in question while engaging key opinion leaders. In the commercialisation phase, Ahmed says MA teams can support commercial and market access teams. 

“Traditionally, the role of Medical Affairs has been to ‘assess and react,’ which evolved into ‘anticipate and inform’. Now, the goal for the next generation of Medical Affairs is to ‘shape and transform’,” he explains.

Expect Personalized and Digital Engagement

MA teams should prepare to transform medical engagement. According to the report “A vision for Medical Affairs in 2025” by McKinsey & Company, they will first need to expand their reach. This will see the number of stakeholders they need to engage increase, including providers and patients. 

But perhaps more importantly, medical affairs teams will need to move quickly into the digital space. The McKinsey team says engagement will be digital, carrying tailored and personalized messages to stakeholders. MA teams will achieve this by creating highly detailed provider journey maps, understanding the needs of individual physicians, and engaging patients more directly.

The last point requires medical affairs teams to understand where and how patients receive support information and engage them at that level. But they will also need to listen more to patients and their doctors to determine how they can use patient real-world data to generate more useful insights for internal and external stakeholders. 

Being digitally disruptive — providing “simple and snackable” content – is where MA engagement is heading. But Jill Condello, Ph.D., vice president of strategic services at Peloton Advantage, warns that while this is a worthy goal, the challenge is remaining compliant. However, by prizing dialogue and fostering open-mindedness among medical and compliance teams, compliance and disruption can coexist.

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Prepare For Sustained Digital Delivery

If the medical affairs future is digital, teams should focus on creating and maintaining routine digital communications. Face-to-face meetings will decrease, write Matthias Evers, Ivan Ostojic, Brindan Suresh et al at McKinsey. But savvy MA teams will create a blended approach of digital engagement and targeted in-person connections.

The success of this hybrid approach to engagement will depend on it being well-coordinated and sustained. Medical affairs teams will also need to consider how they access third-party channels and platforms where stakeholders already interact. 

Additionally, the writer say the messaging needs to be personal and relevant. But it also has to be compelling. MA teams should think about short videos, user-centric designs and simple, customizable interfaces. 

Collaborate With Tech Innovators

Big pharma has resources and expertise. Biotech startups have innovation and flexibility. Combining these strengths could be a boon for both, says Robert Stevens, head of digital strategy and medical innovation, US clinical development and medical affairs, at Novartis. 

MA teams can be the facilitators between big pharma and startups. Stevens says they will need to lead the digital transformation to better reflect the mindsets and ethos that exist at startup organizations. This will require greater flexibility and risk-taking, along with a fierce appetite for innovation and collaboration. 

Novartis partnered with a digital startup that created a native-to-mobile app for healthcare practitioners, with more than two million users and two billion cases uploaded. Before the collaboration, Stevens says the MA team would have created unbranded, non-promotional and educational content for big players’ platforms. But the landscape has changed. HCPs are on their phones for information and they want gamification. Joining forces with a startup has made Novartis’ information dissemination more effective. 

Novartis is not alone in this approach. Niamh O’Reilly, Ph.D., at Australia’s Clinical Research Corporation, notes that in 2018 there were 56 acquisitions and mergers in the digital healthcare space. Just 13 of those added up to a value of $7.6 billion. One acquisition involved tech company Flatiron Health that specializes in electronic health records software specific to cancer.

MA teams should see the value in partnering with tech experts in the digital age. O’Reilly says this approach improves engagement with patients. For example, ResearchKit is an open source framework from Apple for medical researchers and developers to create apps for medical research. 

Partnering with innovators is key to pharma’s success. Heather Moses, UK head of medical affairs at Roche, says that Roche’s partnership with Flatiron Health and Foundation Medicine has helped the company personalize medicine for patients. Indeed, it’s the medical affairs teams that are key to making this change effective, by fostering trust between patients and pharma organizations.

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Tap Into AI Solutions

MA teams should seize the AI opportunity. It can help them to create more structured insights to share with stakeholders and can act as a powerful training tool for MS teams and medical science liaisons, says pharma executive Robert Groebel, writing at Indiana Pharmacists.

AI could provide mentoring to MSLs helping steer their interactions, identifying best engagement channels and most relevant evidence for their individual specialists. But AI could also help MA teams to improve their insights by collating and articulating data from multiple data sources.

Harness Insights from External Stakeholders, Including Patients

External stakeholders can provide valuable insights to MA teams. Tapping into their unique perspectives is advantageous for business strategy and product development. In the Medical Affairs Professional Society newsletter, Karen King, Ph.D., Katharine Howe, Ph.D., and Dr. Klaus-Uwe Kirchgaessler outline how MA teams can access these insights and integrate them with their publication plan.

MA teams should access insights from members of a clinical trial’s publication steering committee — which might include contractors’ medical publication professionals and other therapy area experts — and those on advisory boards comprising external experts. 

Plus MA teams can also gain insight from patients. Connecting with patient advocacy groups and patients early on in a clinical trial is important to gain feedback on research questions, trial design, and data interpretation. King, Howe and Kirchgaessler say that seeking patient feedback remains uncommon, particularly early on in the research process. But patient advocacy groups could help MA teams tailor relevant messages for patients.

Own The Evidence and Focus On Patients

Making evidence-based decisions should be the goal of any organization. With all the data available, MA teams can help to communicate this evidence to stakeholders in ways that are engaging, balanced and concise, says Bart-Jan Van Hasselt, principal consultant at Vintura. 

He notes that evidence planning and generation requires strategic thinking from MA teams. They should focus on tailoring messages to the relevant audience, whether that comprises payers, providers or patients. They should also integrate RWE and translate value-based outcomes into quantifiable and relevant metric for patients, such as better treatment or an improved patient experience.

Indeed, patient engagement is crucially important for MA teams. They need to understand what it is like to experience treatment as patients do, writes Natalie Yeadon, co-owner and managing director of Impetus Digital. This includes taking note of how patients’ cultural, social and lifestyle-related factors can affect the efficacy of treatment.

Patients, payers and HCPs have keen insights that pharma companies can use to improve treatment for patients. By engaging these stakeholders, MA teams can acquire vital feedback to initiate efficiencies in processes and practices. To succeed in this goal, MA teams will need to be flexible and adaptable — and they will need to maximize the powers of digital channels.

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