Social Media and Key Opinion Leaders

Industry Insights from Paul Meade, M.Sc., MPH

Social Media has to be the top buzzword of this still-young millennium, and everyone has been jumping on the bandwagon in the last several years (over one-sixth of planet Earth’s population!). We’re way past the point of the early adopters defining the space, and now almost everyone wants to be part of this wave, so we are all out there blogging and tweeting, and doing whatever else we can to achieve our digital footprint.

But can we use social media to define a thought leader in healthcare?

As you might expect, the answer is both yes and no. Our company, a key opinion leader (KOL) strategy and engagement firm, conducted a study to determine if physicians considered experts in their field actually use social media in any significant ways. We looked at a crowded field—endocrinology—and we divided endocrinology thought leaders in the United States into two camps: well-established, veteran specialists widely-recognized by their peers as leaders in the field and emerging specialists building their careers to the point where others are already recognizing them as up-and-comers in their field.

As expected, the emerging KOLs used social media at twice the level of those established, for the most part older ones, but the surprising result of this study was that this high rate among emerging KOLs was only 10 percent versus five percent for the established KOLs in endocrinology. So, what does this mean right now, with regard to thought leaders participating in social media?

Well, for starters, it means that physicians, for the most part, have not yet embraced social media as a means of gaining recognition and raising their respective profiles among their peers. Instead, they tend to rely on the more traditional means of peer recognition, such as conducting basic research and clinical studies, publishing in respected scientific journals, presenting their work at medical congresses, and becoming involved in various committees. Right now, it seems that writing a blog or engaging with others on social networks, articulating one’s opinions along the way, does not yet impart the respect and recognition from peers as to the credibility of the content.

Interestingly, some emerging physicians seem quite keen to gain some quick recognition from their peers through creating a large digital footprint. They seek to project a larger profile than they really have in the medical community. While this type of activity can achieve some short-lived effects, one cannot circumvent the tried-and-true activities that thought leaders have traditionally followed to reach the pinnacle of their careers (what some call top-tier thought leadership).

So how can a thought leader use social media to help advance his or her career and achieve recognition from their peers? One way is to help promulgate accredited treatment guidelines among the medical community, using some of the social media tools available to them. Another is to use social media to create a professional network of colleagues that work together to achieve a common goal of improving healthcare delivery.

Many KOLs are becoming more involved with patient advocacy groups and consumers in general, and they are using social media to achieve higher levels of effectiveness in these activities. Social media is an effective tool to reach a wide audience of consumers to promote healthcare gains in a given community. And while reaching a large number of patients to promote better healthcare doesn’t always result in ubiquitous peer recognition, it can create a large digital footprint within the medical community that will eventually be recognized as a valuable contribution to society.

Perhaps there is a new definition of key opinion leader evolving that takes into account the impact a physician can have with the patients they serve. Perhaps this new definition will gain acceptance among established thought leaders, and those physicians who dedicate a large part of their professional careers in reaching out to as many consumers as possible to promote healthy choices will one day stand equally beside those who have followed a more traditional pathway.

While we are not quite there yet, the emerging expression of thought leadership in social outlets is certainly worth monitoring, much in the same way companies like ours monitor the rising stars in the traditional areas of thought leadership. But let us not forsake some of the more traditional measures of leadership in the medical field for some of the newer social media activities that are still in early-stage development. Peer recognition to achieve the status of key opinion leader still comes from hard, dedicated work at advancing the science of medicine. And social media is just not that short cut, at least not yet.

Paul Meade, a 30-year veteran of the biopharmaceutical industry, is the founder and President of Thought Leader Select

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