Rise of MSLs: Medical professionals stand in for sales representatives on complex drug launches

Use of medical science liaisons is on the rise in pharma marketing. Thanks to more complex drug formulations and the shift from small-molecule blockbusters to specialty drugs, MSLs—who tend to be doctors and pharmacologists with advanced degrees—are increasingly being hired on the marketing side of the pharma industry.

Although not exactly replacing sales representatives, MSLs are being hired to staff launch teams for biologics or complex specialty drugs instead of what would have traditionally been a sales representative's job on a small-molecule drug. The trend is concentrated in specialty areas including neurology, oncology, gastroenterology and complex cardiovascular, where the need to introduce and sell new concepts and classes of drugs is growing, Gaurav Kapoor, co-founder of healthcare solutions company Indegene, said in an interview.

The increase of MSLs was one of the key findings from Indegene’s recent “Digital Savvy HCP 2017” study (PDF). The research found that while the role of sales representatives will continue to focus on driving share of voice, MSLs will handle the more complex and deep science engagements with HCPs, Kapoor said.

“This is not about share of voice, it’s about more complex selling. MSLs have a more advanced role than sales reps,” he said, and reeled off a list of duties including fewer but higher-quality meetings with doctors, moderating focus group meetings and roundtable conferences, conducting small lunch-and-learn seminars, and doing recruiting for phase 4 real-world studies.

Another driver for pharma MSL hiring is physician demand. Time-crunched KOLs prefer in-depth peer-level disease and condition conversations.

Some pharma companies have noted the increase as well. Radius Health reported in its most recent financial filing that hiring of MSLs for the launch of Tymlos, its new osteoporosis drug for postmenopausal women, contributed to an increase of $4.5 million in compensation expense.

"When building specialty drug forces two years before launch, pharma companies start building with MSLs, so never even hire large number of sales reps. They’re not displacing reps, they’re just not hiring as many sales reps and hiring MSLs more. Where the ratios used to be 1:200, today it’s 1:10 or 1:15 whenever they’re launching a biologic or other complex drug,” Kapoor said.

Findings from the overall digital HCP study indicated that the preferred channel for HCPs is still face-to-face meetings with MSLs and sales representatives, but the gap is narrowing between in-person and digital channel preferences, now at only about 12%, Kapoor said.