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Preparing MSLs for a Leading Role

Updated: Jul 11, 2018

Measuring Effectiveness in Five Competency Areas


The pharmaceutical and biotech stage has changed significantly during the last decade. The growing demand for post-marketing data, the need for customer insights to drive overall strategy, and the more specialized nature of medicine, among other factors, have pushed the Medical Affairs function into the spotlight, moving it from just a supporting clinical role to a leading role in the organization.

In our conversations with multiple Medical Affairs (MA) teams over the past several years, the Learning Solutions capability within inVentiv Health has identified the following five competency areas that are vital across Medical Affairs in general—and specifically for medical science liaisons (MSLs).

  • Internal Communication

  • External Communication

  • Business of Medicine Knowledge

  • Strategic Thinking and Planning

  • Scientific Knowledge

This first part of a two-part series showcases why these five competency areas are critical to MSL success and describes ways to measure MSL effectiveness within those areas. Separately, Part 2 will discuss how to address the gaps in MSL effectiveness through knowledge- and skill-based training.

Why Measure Effectiveness First?

Before embarking on any training program, it’s important to identify the gaps and needs to avoid wasting time and money. For example, sometimes a perceived gap doesn’t actually exist, or it exists but doesn’t have a significant impact on the business. Other times, the gap should be addressed by something other than training, such as rethinking the customer engagement model or incentive structure.

The effectiveness conversation should begin with the end in mind. According to Dr. Leslie Miller, an expert on assessment and measurement, “To accurately measure what needs to improve, we need to have criteria—specific outcomes we are looking for.” For example, when it comes to communication, Dr. Miller says, “We might identify the behaviors we would expect individuals to demonstrate when they are communicating effectively.” For each competency area, specific knowledge levels and behaviors need to be defined to understand what “effective” means.

Measuring Effectiveness in Five Competency Areas

Internal Communication

“Communication” is a broad term that encompasses so many aspects of our lives and jobs. For the purposes of MSL effectiveness, we categorize it by the two environments in which MSLs communicate—internally within the company and externally with customers. Measuring effectiveness in these two arenas requires two different lenses.

Internal communication and collaboration with company colleagues within and outside Medical Affairs have been key to the MA organization since its inception. Nearly every major project the MA team takes on—be it launch, sales force training, sharing medical insights, or publishing study results—is in partnership with another team in the company.

Our clients have given us many reasons why MSLs have gaps in internal communication: clashes between personality types and communication styles in Commercial vs. Medical (due in large part to the backgrounds of people who generally take on those roles) and a perceived difference in the ultimate goal of the different teams. In any case, clients seem to agree that internal communication is critical. Katy Shuck, Director, Sales Learning & Development at Janssen Infectious Diseases, offers this explanation: “At Janssen we strive toward ‘Open and Real’ communication and a ‘One Team All In’ approach to ensure candid discussions and collaborations are part of our culture. As the MSLs’ understanding of the various roles within the organization increases, so does their understanding of how their own contributions contribute to the organization’s larger success.”

Additionally, MSLs must be proactive communicators and deliver unique insights to show their value internally. According to Sara Deppe, Senior Manager, Learning & Development at Janssen Infectious Diseases, “Clearly communicating the line of sight [MSLs] provide and how the information they gather is fed through our divisions is critical.”

Measuring gaps in internal communication can be done through interviews and surveys of not only the MA team, but the people across functions they work with. These interview and survey questions should be tied back to defined observable behaviors.

External Communication

Communicating with customers entails not only providing information, but listening to understand needs and gain medical insights on product access and adoption that can help shape company strategy. What’s more, the customer base is changing, and MSLs are no longer just talking to physicians with similar interests and backgrounds to their own. They must now communicate effectively with payer decision makers and hospital CEOs.

External communication is the main responsibility of most MSL teams. This capability can be measured quantitatively or qualitatively. Many companies employ quantitative metrics, such as the number of customer interactions or the number of times a certain presentation or reprint is used. However, companies should ensure that quantitative metrics don’t encourage MSLs to perform activities simply to check the box. Their activities should meet specific customer needs and fulfill a broader strategic goal.

Customer comments can qualitatively measure the effectiveness of MSLs at external communication. The company can survey or interview customers on their interactions with MSLs. Additionally, since the same customer may interact with multiple people from the same pharma/biotech company, internal peers can be a good source of what customers are saying about MSLs. MSLs can also evaluate themselves through behavior-based quizzes that ask questions such as, “How often do I formulate my next point instead of listening to the customer?” If these questions are asked in an anonymous and safe environment, MSLs are more likely to be honest with themselves and the company about their gaps.

Another way to measure MSLs on their external communication is by observing real-life customer interactions or simulated interactions. Dr. Miller provides an example of a simulation: “We might have an MSL experience a very realistic situation where he/she would need to communicate with a disgruntled customer, and an assessor might evaluate the MSL’s communication behaviors during the conversational exchange. Or, we might have an MSL read a hypothetical series of exchanges between an MSL and a customer and, for each exchange, indicate…how he or she might respond next.”

Finally, MSLs can be measured on their insight-gathering effectiveness by measuring the number and quality of insights gathered. Again, for either the quantitative or qualitative metric, it’s critical to define what “acceptable” or “excellent” look like so that there’s a specific standard being measured against.

Business of Medicine Knowledge

As Medical Affairs grows increasingly important within the organization, its team members must understand how the industry works and how outside influences, such as managed care and government, impact the company. MA team members come from various settings that deliver healthcare or conduct research in a way specific to the organization they work for. When they join the pharma and biotech industry, they must learn about the healthcare settings of multiple customers and the connections between those settings.

Knowledge of the business of medicine can be measured in a fairly straightforward and objective manner, using tools like multiple-choice knowledge assessments on specific business topics. These types of assessments measure competence. However, an important part often missed in traditional assessments is confidence—how comfortable someone is with a topic and how well they feel they can explain it to someone else. inVentiv’s MedIQ is one example of a knowledge assessment that addresses both these aspects of knowledge. MSLs answer questions that evaluate their competence, such as, “Which of the following patients is eligible for Medicare?” For each topic, they also answer questions that measure confidence, such as, “Rate your agreement with the following: I have a good understanding of the difference between Medicare and Medicaid.”

One challenge in measuring the capability of business of medicine knowledge is identifying the questions to ask. What do MSLs need to know about the business of medicine to be successful? Most MSLs come from academic or scientific backgrounds where the intricate workings of the healthcare industry were inconsequential to their job. Now that they are key players and important representatives of a pharma or biotech company, they need to know how their industry works, how it is perceived, and what they can do to create a positive impression of their company and overcome barriers their product may have outside of clinical limitations.

For this reason, it’s important that Medical Affairs teams design assessments on business of medicine acumen that address the key topics MSLs need to be fluent in and that they likely have had little exposure to before—whether it’s specialty product distribution, government payers, Medicare, or an overview of common functions of pharma companies. One size does not fit all when it comes to this kind of assessment. Customizing it to the needs of a specific MSL team based on the product or therapy area they support and the related market access environment is critical.

Strategic Thinking and Planning

Knowing the big picture of what the company is trying to achieve and understanding how Medical Affairs departments and individuals can support that goal through their own actions has more importance now than ever before. The MA function, and MSLs in particular, no longer operate in a “scientific silo.” While all members of the core pharma business must think and plan strategically, MA is in a unique position to interact with key customers much earlier than their Commercial counterparts. This early access and collaboration necessitates a strategic outlook focused on learning from customers and sharing those insights with the rest of the organization.