Every Medical Affairs professional knows the significant value in working with Key Opinion Leaders (KOL), healthcare practitioners (HCPs) whose voice carries credibility, whose work demonstrates expertise, and whose opinion promotes constructive discussions. Typical contractual engagements with KOLs involve generating data which the KOL can then share with the scientific community to ultimately improve patient outcomes.

The social media era has presented Medical Affairs with an innovative opportunity to collaborate with a new clash of KOL—a digitally savvy HCP with a platform. Known as Digital Opinion Leaders (DOL) or Connected Opinion Leaders, these physicians are considered “go-to” experts in their practice areas by hundreds to thousands (or more) of doctors who follow the DOL on Twitter, read their updates on LinkedIn, or subscribe to their email newsletter.

The reason Medical Affairs should engage both KOLs and DOLs is the same—the collection and dissemination of valuable insights. Conversations between MSLs and KOLs have traditionally resulted in two-way education and collaborations such as advisory boards, clinical trial participation, and published findings that further medical knowledge. While conventional KOLs have immense reach and industry influence, DOLs reach and influence new, different mediums. The KOL’s perspective is respected by their peers, of course. They are an “opinion leader,” after all. The KOL speaks to groups and at conferences or, now in the age of COVID-19, via video conference. DOLs are able to reach thousands of physicians with one tweet, post, update, comment, reply, or reply—or all the above. Their voice simply carries further. So when Medical Affairs engages DOLs, they extend their reach.

There are additional reasons to connect with DOLs. For more insight on the “why” of Digital Opinion Leader engagement, read The Top 3 Criteria for Identifying Digital Key Opinion Leaders | KOL Management Tips. Our focus here is the “how.” Several of these top ten ways to engage DOLs are not out of the ordinary, but you will likely find something you hadn’t yet thought to do digitally.

Insight Generation

Digital Opinion Leaders tend to be niche voices yet may become future mainstream leaders in their specific therapeutic area. Consider dermatologist and internist Dr. Steven T. Chen. His career growth has corresponded to accruing interest in his online platform—Twitter specifically. Dr. Chen is the exemplary DOL. Not only does he tweet medical insights to his over 6,000 followers, a considerable share of whom are physicians, but he has thirty-five PubMed credits. On top of peer-reviewed publishing, Dr. Chen is Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School, Co-director of the Comprehensive Cutaneous Lymphoma Program, and Director of Medical Education and Director of the Blistering Orders Clinic in the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Dermatology.

From HCPs like Dr. Chen, Medical Affairs can glean data that can turn into medical insights. Approach DOLs for that very reason—ask to hear their perspective on future trends. Like KOLs, DOLs engage in large numbers of conversations with other doctors in their practice area. Thus, insight generation for Medical Affairs is a realistic expectation for DOL engagement. After all, DOLs are motivated to help evolve the science. Social media activity is not self-promotion; that’s a misconception we hear often. Sure, an HCP may have 10,000 followers and have a tweet or video go viral every now and then. But we don’t encounter that mindset. The DOLs we’ve spoken to have become the medical community’s version of an online influencer to aggregate the latest scientific findings from their peers, ensure they have the most current data, and advance their profession. It’s a new way they as physicians can improve patient outcomes. Isn’t that why KOLs research, publish, and speak at conferences?

Scientific Dissemination

The Digital Opinion Leader’s audience as well as their local physician community turn to them for advice, so they want to provide the research to answer those questions. Enter Medical Affairs, which can provide the most up-to-date science. Engage DOLs the same as you would any other Key Opinion Leader to bring new data to their audience.

DOLs value having fair, balanced, up-to-date information and access to MSLs to ask questions about a specific disease, a new product, or another timely topic. Equipped with those answers, DOLs often distribute that research to other HCPs via their social media platform. The turnaround from information gathering to information sharing via a status update, blog article, email newsletter, or #tweetorial can be days, if not hours. Compare this to the traditional scientific dissemination timelines. It can take months, even years for a KOL to present at a congress or publish in a journal. DOL engagement is virtually on-demand research dissemination that provides understanding and promotes trust.

Medical Education

DOLs “speak internet” and think about content differently, not just online. They have a way of shrinking vast information down to small, digestible chunks. These qualities alone make Digital Opinion Leaders ideal partners for targeted medical education. Medical Affairs would therefore be wise to engage DOLs through the development of new, innovative medical education. 

For example, Medical Science Liaisons often share presentations and approved materials with established KOLs. A KOL, given a seventy-five page slide deck, delivers state-of-the-art disease training to a room of ten. But what might happen if MSLs approach digital leaders with such material? No, they may not give that same lecture. They may not present in person at a conference, a summit, or a congress at all. Not a problem. That DOL, wanting to deliver high-quality medical education to their engaged audience, could summarize the slideshow into a tweetorial or status update and share the most poignant points with thousands of doctors.

A virtuous cycle has begun. After educating their followers, the DOL receives replies, comments, questions, and requests to clarify or explain further. The DOL can bring this feedback to the Medical Affairs field team, who then get to work developing that material. The DOL may even want to help. When Medical Affairs collaborates with Digital Opinion Leaders, education leads to more education leads to even more, all intended to inform the medical community and improve patient outcomes.

Social Media Roundtable

The difference between medical education and a roundtable is intent. Whereas education is facilitation of learning, a roundtable generates discussion. So what is a roundtable exactly? We’re seeing Medical Affairs facilitate social media events such as live Twitter broadcasts in which they informally discuss a topic of interest to their audience while fielding real-time follower questions. Sometimes the DOL is joined in person by an established, well-respected KOL, and they co-facilitate. Medical Affairs field personnel help organize, schedule, and monitor these roundtables. They can develop approved materials and train the DOL prior to the event. Of course, due to compliance, MSLs cannot feed the DOL or any co-facilitator scripted or spontaneous answers to commenter questions. Nor can the MSLs reply to those comments directly even though social media is a public platform. Medical Affairs must take the silent observer role, which still has extraordinary value. Hundreds of data points appear during a single roundtable, all of which can go through the standard insight generation process to find patterns which ultimately inform Medical Affairs strategy.

We would be remiss to mention a concern our clients have expressed about social media roundtables. If the live broadcast is public, which 99 percent or more are simply to reach the most physician viewers, anyone can listen. Competitors. Regulators. Even patients. Plus, there is a lasting record of everything said. As the saying goes, if it’s on the internet, it’s forever. Still, we (and our clients) have reached an informed conclusion—roundtables are worth the effort and the drawbacks that may emerge can be managed. It all adds up to more medical insights.

Another example of a roundtable is called an online journal club, the digital version of the traditional journal clubs where physicians meet with colleagues in person or over teleconference to discuss an article, finding, study, or trial. Read our guide to journal clubs here, How Doctors Bring a Journal Club Online | Online Journal Club Guidelines.

Advisory Boards

The typical Medical Affairs advisory board involves a group of physicians gathering in a room or via video conference. The Medical Affairs team presents new information on a disease, drug, or medical development and gets the members’ reactions.

Gathering formal insights from DOLs through advisory board engagement is essential because they bring a different perspective than other members do. At Acceleration Point, we’re noticing that DOLs who join advisory boards are able to bring vast feedback based not only on their perspective but on those of the thousands of doctors they engage with on social media every month. 

While nondisclosure agreements prevent DOLs from having an open discussion online about these advisory board discussions, the private forum allows for deeper discussion, making advisory boards worth everyone’s while.

Study Investigators

Every study site has minimum requirements for participation. For example, a physician who is not board-certified to provide chemotherapy infusions cannot be part of an infusion-based drug trial. Some Digital Opinion Leaders qualify as a study site. Their digital presence offers a different and complementary medium to distribute the study’s results. 

At Acceleration Point, we’ve been advising our clients to identify and engage the most popular, socially savvy DOLs who qualify for studies in that therapeutic area. You can guess why. Because the DOL is likely to speak and write about the study’s findings extensively for their online audience. The DOL was involved, so naturally the doctor is excited to share. And they are able to do so quickly and at scale through social media.

Reporter

We’ve met a few Digital Opinion Leaders who also served as medical congress organizing body members. After contributing to the presentations, reading a new publication, or hearing other HCPs’ perspectives, these DOLs have shared what they learned with the medical community online. In this way, DOLs function as reporters.

We’ve seen Medical Affairs invite DOLs for a discussion with leadership about what they’ve learned during the congress. They’re able to remain in contact throughout the event as DOLs are sharing with their audience what they are learning.

Internal Education

Digital Opinion Leaders whom Medical Affairs has engaged can provide education to their internal MA teams on the topic of DOL engagement. For example, who else in the medical community is online? How can Medical Science Liaisons engage younger HCPs? It’s a wise strategy to engage future leaders of a therapeutic area. Also, Generation X and Millennial doctors think differently and may want to be engaged differently than practicing physicians from my grandfather’s generation. What does Medical Affairs need to know about these generational differences? DOLs can speak to that.

The DOL you are partnered with can also make an introduction to trusted thought leaders and invite them to join a Medical Affairs team meeting. There, that expert can share the latest research on a disease, treatment, or the reception a pharmaceutical product has received.

Emerging Experts

DOL engagement is the fastest way to find emerging experts. These are the Key Opinion Leaders and Digital Opinion Leaders of the future. Some are likely working under a KOL, perhaps running a study or writing about one. Medical Affairs should seek out these emerging experts sooner than later.

Why? Not to mention . . . how?

Winning long-term strategies are developed before they’re needed. They’re long-term, after all. Medical Affairs can develop a long-term DOL engagement strategy. Medical Science Liaisons can ask the DOLs and KOLs they’re already meeting with, “Who will the medical community be paying great attention to over the next five to ten years?” Then, the MSLs can ask for the introduction. In our experience, these doctors are thrilled to provide it. The more physicians are connected, the faster critical insights are shared.

Mentoring

Digital Opinion Leaders recognize the value of a relationship with Medical Affairs, insight generation and dissemination primarily. Another way we’re seeing MA strengthen their relationship with the DOL is through mentorship. Given that DOLs tend to be earlier in their careers than many of their peers, they are hungry to learn. Medical Affairs can match them with an expert in the same field, in the same industry, in the same therapeutic area. The mentor can provide the DOL with something meaningful to work on together. Medical Affairs can provide opportunities for that collaboration. Consider social media roundtables, the medical education we discussed earlier, or even a formal relationship such as an advisory board.

Often, the DOL and KOL end up mentoring each other. Sometimes approved Medical Affairs resources are involved. MA can provide education to the DOL about the process of building their scientific expertise, a process the KOL knows well. MA can give the KOL on-demand digital opinion leadership training and encourage the DOL to share their experience and a few tips on getting started sharing their perspective online.

Whichever one of these ten ways your Medical Affairs teams uses next to connect with Digital Opinion Leaders, chances are they’ll find other ways to engage. Acceleration Point has partnered with Medical Affairs to streamline the entire DOL engagement process, from identifying the DOL to making first contact to establishing a formal working relationship. Based on that knowledge alone, we could have written “Top 101 Ways to Engage Digital Opinion Leaders,” and that would hardly cover all the forms DOL engagement takes!

If you would like to develop or refine your DOL or KOL engagement strategy, feel free to contact Acceleration Point today.