Beyond the Specialist: The Growing Importance of Thought Leadership in Primary Care, Allied Health Professions

By Brian Castle and Kristen Smithwick

When most people think about thought leaders in medicine, specialists in oncology, neurology, rheumatology and other therapeutic areas immediately come to mind.  However, with the proliferation of illnesses and conditions ranging from diabetes and obesity to asthma, gastrointestinal diseases and psychiatric disorders, key opinion leaders in primary care and allied health professions are more important than ever.

In addition to the growing incidence of several “lifestyle” conditions, the structure of U.S. healthcare dictates that people suffering in these areas see their primary care physicians (PCPs), nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and pharmacists with much greater frequency than their specialists.  As a result, more PCPs and allied health professionals are joining their specialist colleagues in all of the critical areas that define thought leadership, including publishing, basic and clinical research, clinical practice, speaking, and advocacy involvement.

Thought Leader Select has conducted multiple assessments of thought leader populations in a variety of therapeutic areas, with particular attention to the impact of PCPs, also known as general practitioners, in areas of treatment as diverse as diabetes, allergies, infectious disease, and gastrointestinal conditions.  Primary care physicians, along with their nurse practitioner (NP), physician assistant (PA), and registered nurse colleagues, consistently distinguish themselves in many of the traditional areas of thought leadership once assumed to be the domain of specialists and sub-specialists.

Leaders in Patient Advocacy and Support

For example, nurse practitioners and physician assistants tend to be involved in several types of patient advocacy activities, including:

– Free healthcare to indigent populations – both domestically and abroad
– Local and regional task forces to advise on public health for various disease states, such as HIV, Hepatitis C, diabetes, obesity, and others
– Lobbying efforts to improve primary care in the U.S.
– Free educational sessions and healthcare screenings for patients
– Participation in community disease awareness events
– Support group facilitation for patients and loved ones with chronic illnesses, such as HIV, Hepatitis C, and others.

    Leaders in Breakthrough Research

    In addition to their critical work offering direct and indirect patient support within their respective clinical practices, PCPs and their allied health professional counterparts are doing a lot of heavy lifting in the research community.

    In a recent Thought Leader Select study of 44 U.S. NPs and PAs who specialize in gastroenterology, hepatology, and/or HIV/AIDS, the research team discovered that 70 percent of these health care professionals are active in research activities. Most of these key opinion leaders have served in co-investigator roles, and, as a group, they have worked on an average of 8.5 research projects within the last 5 years.

    In another recent therapeutic area assessment of 23 U.S. PCP key opinion leaders in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome, Thought Leader Select found that a full 87 percent are active in research. At least one of these primary care thought leaders currently serves as study chair of a study funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

    Leaders in Educating Their Peers

    Thought leadership can be defined, in a nutshell, as making a difference.  Key opinion leaders make a difference in the lives of patients in many ways, such as leading patient support groups and participating in clinical research to develop next-generation treatments. Perhaps, however, the biggest impact of thought leaders comes from those who have a commitment to sharing their best practices and discoveries with their peers.  In our GI/hepatology/HIV/AIDS study of  NPs and PAs, Thought Leader Select discovered that 84 percent of the NPs and PAs actively lecture at medical conferences and grand rounds. On average, these health care professionals have given 15 talks within the past 5 years.

    Brian Castle is Director of Global Marketing and Client Relations at Thought Leader Select. Kristen Smithwick is Vice President of Global Business Development, Marketing, and Strategic Planning at Thought Leader Select.

    For more information on Thought Leader Select’s research assessments of the skills and experiences of leading experts in global, national, and regional medical communities, contact Brian Castle at

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