The Secret to Sound KOL Research—It’s Not a Data Dump

Industry Insights from Brian Castle

There are many ways that life science companies approach finding the right key opinion leaders in medicine to collaborate on next-generation treatments.

Some have the privilege of retaining staff members with decades of experience, during which they get to know the top doctors in their therapeutic area or disease state.  This do-it-yourself (“DIY”) method can be fraught with challenges, but it can also provide valuable insights through sound relationship building.

Other companies, to fill gaps in compliance or expertise within a given area, will contract with research organizations for their KOL work.  There are now over fifty companies (and counting) engaged in some form of key opinion leader identification, profiling, mapping, or engagement planning activities, and that’s not even counting the dozens of specialty medical communications agencies  and larger agencies that list medcomms as a specialty area.

Contracting with external vendors can result in great work, full of insights on the right medical professionals who can make a difference in whether a product succeeds or fails in getting in the right hands—those of patients.  But it can also result in really bad work—a data dump—that basically tells the buyer nothing.

We can define bad research quite easily—you know it when you see it. It often comes from methodologies that are suspect at first glance, those that rely upon too much statistical extrapolation—a compounding of errors, if you will.  Particularly dangerous are the companies that utilize subjective methods, such as peer nomination, data crawling, or social network analysis, and couple these with a lack of industry experience in healthcare.

When you take a side-by-side comparison of detailed research across multiple categories to a more subjective or technology-driven approach with a lack of industry experience, the results are telling.  At first glance, you see that the HCPs with the most mentions—in areas such as publishing and clinical trials—will be evident on everyone’s list.

Upon deeper-dive analysis, you see a critical drop-off in the integrity of the rosters generated.  You have to keep in mind the subject of the research—medical professionals—to understand why.  These are people, not mere data or statistical sets, and people have lives.  Doctors, like anyone else, experience changes in their work levels and their career priorities—some move into executive positions or slow down their non-practice-related activities.  Others go on hiatus or sabbatical, or retire. Others still go to work for life sciences companies. And, like all humans, even key opinion leaders pass away at some point.

This leads us back to a real definition of key opinion leaders. Some of these methodologies would have you think that everyone is a leader. One company recently touted nearly 15,000 leaders in a particular therapeutic area.  While other companies, looking to fulfill an order quota, instead of a true number of leaders in an area, will fill in anyone who receives a peer nomination, with no credible backing data.

Just as key opinion leaders have the same constraints as other human beings in their careers, the field of medicine has its leaders and its followers.  It’s no insult to the thousands of people focusing on clinical practice and impacting the lives of numerous patients to say they aren’t leaders in their profession.  Every profession has people who do the work in the field, and, just as importantly, those who define the field.

Key opinion leaders define the field of medicine, so that they and others can have that huge impact on public and patient health. They do this in a number of ways, much more than what is evident by a quick data crawl on a publications database or a nomination survey without quality research.  They research, publish, and speak.  In other words, they work on the science, write about their work, and speak about it to influence others as to the treatments they are using to do better by patients.

Leading physicians and allied health professionals utilize a number of avenues to advance their work, including positions on advisory boards and journal editorial boards, media exposure, and collaborating on treatment guidelines and regulatory and reimbursement processes.

You simply can’t “dumb down” KOL research, because the subject is too complex to rely on a simple methodology, or a couple of areas. It’s a highly-intelligent, ever-evolving space that deserves attention to the details of the science and the tactics that medical professionals use to advance it.

Brian Castle is the Director of Global Marketing and Client Relations at Thought Leader Select. 

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