Medical affairs teams, long said to be on-track for an expansion in scope, are finally earning a more prominent place in pharma’s commercialization mix. 

That conclusion was reflected in a recent study showing that medical science liaisons (MSLs) eclipsed sales reps as pharma’s most important channel for conveying information to healthcare professionals. 

MSLs also came in second on a list of industry’s biggest anticipated budget increases.

“Industry is making good progress with its digital engagement efforts, and it’s interesting to see greater emphasis on medical rather than marketing-led activity for the first time,” stated Jonathan Macdonald, COO of EPG Health, which led the study.

The respondents included 134 pharma-based execs spread among such functions as medical affairs (43%), marketing (25%) and commercial/sales (11%). The global study, which also tapped the views of HCPs and service providers, was a follow-up to a study EPG ran in 2021. 

As a corporate function, medical affairs has labored under a somewhat narrow definition. Pigeonholed as a communications bridge between the R&D and sales/marketing areas, MSLs were neither fully valued as partners by clinical development nor considered quite as important as their counterparts in commercial.

Over the years, consultants and others have predicted they would expand their role. That’s mainly because science and data – two areas in which MSLs excel – are becoming increasingly important for pharma firms to realize their products’ full potential.

Overtaking the sales force as pharma’s primary driver of HCP engagement is a significant step. MSLs outpaced reps as the most important channel for delivering scientific information to that audience – 84% versus 77% – something not seen before in EPG’s research.

“Medical affairs functions are rivaling the marketing function for digital airtime,” the study authors noted. 

There was another indication that their time may have finally arrived.

When asked to predict which aspects of marketing they expect to get a budget or resource boost, 45% of pharma respondents picked MSL activities as ripe for either big or small increases, with 32% saying “no change,” according to the results.

Until now, budget and resource allocation have been considered “a significant limitation” by the medical function as compared to marketing, EPG observed. 

The channel and budget findings dovetail with a larger shift in the industry’s strategic priority toward focusing on HCP needs and behavior. When asked to select their top digital priorities for strategic focus in the year ahead, 57% of pharma respondents cited “HCP insight” – i.e., meeting their needs and influencing behavior – as the top strategic HCP engagement priority for the year ahead. 

That marks a change in emphasis since EPG’s 2021 report, when “a shift in digital culture or mindset” was pharma’s top strategic priority amid the upheaval of the pandemic. 

Given MSLs’ fluency in science and their ability to carry on deeper clinical conversations with HCPs and payers, they seem well-poised to lead the charge. 

While the findings suggest companies will sharpen their focus on meeting HCPs’ information priorities, gaps remain. For one, despite HCPs signaling a higher demand for disease information, supplying brand information is still pharma’s top budget priority.

Similarly, while HCPs consider independent medical websites their preferred channel for consuming this information, researchers found pharma companies remain “overwhelmingly focused” on delivering their own content via their own channels.

“For delivery of educational content, meeting HCP needs will require support for third party sources,” they concluded. “Relinquishing some control of message and delivery may be necessary to build credibility and impact.”

Pharma marketers also need to do a better job of measuring the impact of their educational activities. That said, so-called “vanity” metrics are set to be replaced by more sophisticated methods of assessing and demonstrating HCP learning needs, knowledge gain, behavior change and impact in clinical practice, EPG predicted.