Industry Insights from Paul Meade, M. Sc., MPH
There has been quite a lot of noise lately regarding the use of social network techniques to find key opinion leaders in the medical profession. Whether it’s through what some call social network analysis or the creation of health care professional-only social networks, proponents of these methods like to think that they are reinventing thought leadership and its metrics.
In fact, some advocates even suggest they can find more key opinion leaders in the medical field than by using other tried and tested, and sometimes validated approaches. Can this be true? Well, it depends on how these companies, and better yet, how the end users of their services, define thought leaders or key opinion leaders (KOLs).
There are those with backgrounds in information technology, as well as social sciences such as sociology and psychology, and other areas outside healthcare who are trying to redefine thought leadership in medicine to fit the template of the products they are selling. For example, some of them have taken concepts of social interactions and applied them to finding those medical experts that either publish together or even present at similar conferences. But just because someone writes a paper with someone else doesn’t mean they are both KOLs. In fact, the contrary is often the case.
So let’s back up and revisit the true definition of a thought leader in the medical profession. Most key opinion leaders are not self-appointed—they earn their status through years of dedicated engagement within a particular field of interest, and by achieving recognition from their peers and colleagues as having a high degree of expertise. These physicians and other health care professionals have executed numerous activities within their field over a period of years to achieve such recognition.
The scope of a thought leader’s work can result in local, regional, national, or global influence within his or her particular field of interest. Are they typically recognized by their peers for doing only one thing very well? Of course not. While some physicians may dedicate their professional lives to basic research or speaking at global conferences, most people would agree that key opinion leaders accomplish many things across a range of activities.
The social network pundits, on the other hand, would have you believe that quantity does not a KOL make. But neither does simply publishing in scientific journals or even having a social network. One would often find a thought leader in medicine conducting multiple research projects, publishing many peer-reviewed articles in respected journals, speaking at many conferences, participating on treatment guidelines, involved with academic and government committees, actively involved in patient advocacy organizations, and engaging with media outlets for interviews about their work and their specific field of expertise. In other words, it is not just doing one thing well that brings recognition by colleagues, but doing many things well.
The concept of social networks is well over 100 years old and has been studied by sociologists and psychologists for many years. The idea that by observing a group of interacting people one can sometimes predict who may have an influence over the other members in the network is nothing new. But humans are more complex than their just their social interactions.
In Public Health, for instance, we study social networks in an effort to facilitate change in health behaviors. It is well known that people with diabetes have a multitude of social networks, such as family, friends, church members, neighbors, and co-workers. Attempting to determine which social network has the greatest influence on their health behavior is often very difficult, and thus often ineffective when targeting intervention programs on a single network. It is often a fool’s game.
Now, take a group of physicians managing diabetes and determine their social networks. These networks are indeed also complex, and often too complicated to determine the factors that define influence and status. By simply looking at professional interactions in a narrow area, like publication collaborations, does not mean one has defined the overall sphere of influence for a given member of that network. To be sure, there is some value in understanding social networks among physicians, but to extrapolate an interaction network as being the overriding deterministic factor defining a thought leader in medicine is full of confounding errors and false conclusions.
Thus, let’s stand firm on the fact that a thought leader is a multi-dimensional expert within a particular field of medicine. And if we accept this premise to be true, then we simply can’t afford to use a one-dimensional approach to characterize such a person. By carefully examining three key dimensions—the quantity of their work, the quality of their achievements, and the relevancy to the advancement of medicine—one can apply a more validated approach to defining key opinion leaders.
Here’s a good illustration of the quantity/quality/relevancy point: the minimum number of satellites needed to determine one’s location using a global positioning system is three. Not two, and certainly not one! So, to find the real leaders in medicine one should not rely on a single method, but rather a set of methodologies that triangulate and validate the skills and experiences of true key opinion leaders.
In conclusion, while social networks can certainly be informative and useful in certain circumstances, the analysis methods are certainly unproven and not fully validated when applied to thought leadership in the medical field. With so much at stake, we must take these tools for what they are, rather than let them attempt to redefine the playing field. You simply can’t reduce thought leadership, as defined across multiple impact areas of scientific research and clinical practice, to who happened to collaborate on a publication or presentation. Furthermore, we must reject the notion that social network analysis and social networking itself creates any more thought leaders than there really are, since so much more goes into defining thought leadership status.
The true measure of a thought leader is multi-dimensional and nuanced, and, above all else, determined by the relative scope of their work as judged by other thought leaders in the field—not by any one particular aspect of an interaction.