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Pharmaceutical companies are eager to identify significant physicians that are likely to be adopters and or advocates for their brands, both at launch and during life cycle management. Engaging major thought leaders to market their product is vital to their brand success. Previously, commercial teams focused on a combination of high volume and thought leading prescribers (KOLs). The thought was that the more patients and prescriptions, the greater diffusion potential for their drug. However, this tactic is one employed by all and thus competitive advantage is difficult to attain; everyone is doing the same thing. Competition has risen to the degree that companies are broadening their categories to encompass much more than just the typical specialist or national KOL profile. In 2012 it was reported that groups such as subspecialists, which had previously been targeted by 34% of companies, were being targeted by almost 60% of companies¹. Additional growing groups include preventative medicine providers, physician assistants, primary care physicians, and internists. These new KOLs are sought after for their impact in critical activities, not just based off of prescriptions and volume of patients. Lastly, activities have increasingly focused more on local or regional KOLs with measurable impact in narrow markets.

MSL (Medical Science Liaison) teams dedicate over 40% of their time to thought leadership management activities¹. In this increasingly competitive and local environment, companies are employing a variety of tactics to improve positioning and accomplish specific objectives. There seem to be a few key emerging trends:

  • Early Engagement: Many companies are engaging thought leaders early on in the process. Some companies are beginning thought leader communication during the pre-clinical phase. The goal is to build more relationships and build them more quickly. As well as using the clinical development process as a road to a key role as early advocates.
  • Contextual Categorization of Expertise: This process involves various methods from face-to-face interactions, searching conferences and seminars and digging through secondary research to find the right leader for the right role. New advances in text mining, taxonomy, and natural language processing have enabled the public presence of physicians (conferences abstracts) to be mined for clinical bias or preference. For example, analysis of a paper favoring a certain mechanism of disease may indicate a preference for the therapeutic mode of action.
  • Network Influence over Pure Volume of Patients: New advances in network science, used commonly in social media, are now being applied to the commercial targeting of prescribers. These methods, including those developed at Activate Networks (now part of Decision Resources Group (DRG)), allow commercial and med affairs teams to identify the influence that physicians have over each other, and to predict the path through which clinical ideas spread. This enables pharma to influence multiple prescribers through activities with a smaller set of physicians, and to predict the magnitude and pace of this influence.
  • Physician Role in the Organized Consolidated Health Care system: In addition to improved targeting practices, it is of increasing importance to understand the role of IDNs, ACOs and insurers in physicians’ decision making. Pharma increasingly needs to answer the question, “who is making the prescribing decision, the doctor, the payer, or the hospital/IDN”. While this market remains in flux, there are approaches that can parse these factors. Behavioral modeling (Activate Networks), understanding of insurance market share (HealthLeaders-InterStudy), and details of physician affiliation, employment terms, and compensation (ACO contracts) should all be part of a singular targeting analysis.

Optimizing Commercial Targeting

For brand managers, it is critical to think of KOL management and engagement as part of a continuum that begins in clinical development and includes the factors of both commercial engagement, message development and market access. Companies can greatly benefit from their investments in managing their KOL relationships and evolving targeting strategies to factor in payer and hospital/IDN influence. If the targeting process and promotion implementation are executed soundly they can undoubtedly increase their product adoption and market share.

¹Ray, Sarah (Senior Research Analyst) "Engaging Thought Leaders Early." Cutting Edge Information. 2012.

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