How is the Role of a Thought Leader in Healthcare Changing?

By Paul Meade, Patient Engagement Lead

For many decades, the healthcare thought Leader, also known as a key opinion leader (KOL), or key external expert (KEE), was defined by their involvement in various activities, such as conducting clinical research, publishing articles in scientific journals, presenting at medical conferences, developing treatment guidelines, and a host of other areas related to their profession. They were also recognized by their geographic footprint, from a global thought leader to a local one. Their peers often recognized them as being very accomplished within their field of expertise’s academic and clinical areas. And while, for the most part, all these considerations still define a KOL, the landscape is changing.


There is a new breed of thought leaders challenging the traditional role of yesterday’s KOL. These new thought leaders are embracing the digital world we live in today. In fact, the term digital opinion leader, or DOL, was coined several years ago to describe these healthcare professionals using social media, electronic tools, and even artificial intelligence (AI) to look at real-world evidence to improve health outcomes for their patients. Their outreach to patients differentiates them from the classical KOL. They welcome patient engagement and often seek a partnership with patients in health and wellness. Not only are they comfortable in a digital world, they are also committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). They understand the value of managing patients with different races and ethnicities, orientations, or genders and seek optimal health outcomes while meeting the diverse needs of their patients.


Will the classical KOL and the new DOL co-exist in healthcare in the future? Yes, but not for too much longer. Over the next few years, these two roles will be converged. The traditional KOLs will start to look more like DOLs, and the DOLs will absorb some of the traditional activities of the KOLs. But both will change from their current roles of today. Evidence-based outcomes research using machine learning and AI will force this convergence to the new thought leader of tomorrow. A thought leader that uses the latest scientific knowledge to improve health outcomes and digital tools to reach a diverse population with vast cultural differences will emerge from this convergence.


Perhaps a new term will emerge to describe this future thought leader in healthcare. Undoubtedly, they will be a patient-focused thought leader.  Like over a century ago, when physicians had to balance science and art to administer care in a world with limited science, the thought leader in the future will again find themselves positioned between advancing science and the art of reaching patients in the most effective manner possible to achieve the greatest outcomes. As we all adapt to the digital world we live in, so must healthcare professionals adapt to this changing landscape to keep us healthy and well for many years to come.

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