Effectively Engaging Key Opinion Leaders And Stakeholders

Your medical communication and education is only as good as the healthcare professionals you reach and before you can reach them you need to understand who they are, where they are, and what they need. This is something you will need to do for every program.

One way to do this is to partner with key opinion leaders. By bringing in experts you can ensure that your communication program is genuine and clinically relevant to your target audience. Working with KOLs to develop content is not essential but, in my experience, it optimises the quality of the content and the learning participation.

Healthcare professionals are at least as busy as they’ve ever been and have become more discerning when it comes to where and how they spend their time improving their knowledge and skills. It is therefore essential that any program you develop is the very best it can be.

We can all guess what healthcare professionals need to know; unfortunately our judgement can be clouded by our own commercially oriented insights. Yes, it is important for healthcare professionals to learn about and understand your products but if this information is not presented in a clinically relevant, patient-centric and balanced way, then its value can be significantly diminished. 

So, rather than guess, we can go with the less risky and more sensible option of finding out exactly what they need to know. That starts by identifying the right people, bringing them on board, and making the best use of their knowledge.

One of the more common challenges I have is persuading clients that they actually need to look for the right key opinion leaders.  In some cases, their default is to work with their established pool of KOLs, which is entirely sensible so long as they are the right people. 

It is also worth noting that it is just as important to let the wrong one go as it is to attract the right KOL. Too often I see clients working with KOLs that are not the right fit or simply because they are a friendly face. 

It’s understandable why companies do this. They know it’s important to build good relationships with key healthcare professionals, and it seems sensible to build on existing relationships instead of trying to create new ones from scratch, especially when you’re working to very tight timeframes. It’s efficient and low-risk. The problem is that it may not be very inspiring. 

Sometimes we even need to think about replacing a KOL with someone that is better skilled or has more knowledge in a particular therapeutic area or subspecialty. This can be challenging. But if the aim is to produce content to the highest possible quality, then this is something that has to be done. Granted, it doesn’t come without some risk but in most cases this can be managed.

One of my projects involved helping a client re-structure a communications plan based on engaging and mobilising a number of key opinion leaders. As a starting point, they had pulled together their own list of KOLs and advocates in descending order of importance. 

Working with our client, we developed a list of key criteria to objectively evaluate and rank a list of KOLs. Much to the client’s surprise our ranking did not match theirs, even though we had used criteria they agreed with. They had been focusing on ‘friendly’ KOLs rather than true thought leaders.

Generally speaking, there are no good or bad KOLs; it just depends on the rationale for engaging them. Regardless of the specific criteria, the aim is to objectively assess potential KOLs. Once you’ve worked out which of them to partner with, think about why you want to work with them. 

Clearly, no one wants to work with people that are openly hostile or antagonistic toward you or your company. It is a normal response to be cautious of, or even avoid, the opinionated individual for fear they may derail proceedings. 

However, you shouldn’t ignore the opinionated or the more ‘challenging’ types. More often than not, they can provide the sort of insight that will propel your program to the next level. Generally speaking, if you’ve done your screening and briefed your panel beforehand you will significantly mitigate the risk of your meeting going off the rails.

Regardless, just because someone might be outspoken is no reason to avoid them. What makes them disruptive is probably also what makes them opinion leaders. They also make it less likely your panel will fall into a comfortable consensus that might not reflect clinical reality. The last thing you want is a committee looking for a compromise position that gets them to a path of least resistance.

If there are one or two outspoken people in the group you’re likely to get a much more dynamic process. They stop things getting complacent and challenge some of the more comfortable assumptions.