The Medical Science Liaison (MSL) role is often associated with PhDs, postdocs and in some counties with an MD degree. But we know from our 2017 global MSL salary survey that quite a few MSLs globally have a pharmacist background. For instance, in the US and Portugal, 27% and 22% of the MSLs had a PharmD degree, respectively. And in Australia we know there is quite a high percentage of BPharm and/or MPharm trained MSLs. Becoming an MSL as a pharmacist is not always mentioned as a career path. So, what can make a pharmacist a good MSL candidate?
First, what is an MSL?
The MSL is the disease matter expert in the medical (affairs) department of the pharmaceutical/biotech company and must have a strong scientific and/or clinical background. Because of the MSL’s strong scientific and clinical knowledge, the MSL is the first point of contact to answer any complex scientific and clinical questions from the internal stakeholders (their colleagues) and external stakeholders (the doctors). MSLs are therefore often at the forefront of cutting edge clinical and scientific developments and are sharing this information with the medical and scientific community to improve patient outcomes.
Second, what does a day of an MSL looks like?
No two days are ever the same in the life of an MSL. This is what makes the role so diverse and interesting. Broadly speaking, days are spent working on either internal or external activities.
Internal activities range from medical team meetings, cross-functional brand team workshops, conducting medical training for (commercial) colleagues, reading the latest clinical papers or global slide decks from the most recent international conference (that you might have attended yourself) or preparing for a broad range of external projects including advisory boards and medical education events.
External activities are primarily focused on engaging with key opinion leaders (KOLs) in the field. The main goal of an MSL is to establish credible peer-to-peer relationships with these KOLs and most of our energy is spent on this external facing part of the job. These KOL interactions enable MSLs to gain a better understanding of the current and future treatment landscape and algorithms, patient journeys and data gaps from a KOL’s perspective – to just name a few topics. During these discussions with the KOLs, the MSL has an opportunity to also discuss the science, discuss new clinical trial ideas, present the latest clinical data and seek feedback and insights from those KOLs on how these (new) clinical data may impact their clinical practice. Together all these insights gathered from the field by the MSL (team) will drive the internal strategy to optimize patient outcomes.
Third, what advantages do pharmacist have in becoming an MSL?
As a pharmacist, the intense clinical training and pharmacy practice experience will provide you with a solid medical grounding for the MSL role. Extensive drug knowledge across all therapy areas will enable you to grasp scientific concepts and allow you to delve deeper into the disease state you are going to work on. Understanding the pharmacology of drugs is fundamental in the MSL role, and something that is naturally ingrained in a clinical pharmacist’s brain.
The ability to discuss and articulate patient care and therapeutic treatment options will help you immensely in engaging with many KOLs and clinical experts. Understanding the “clinical lingo” and the ability to “talk the clinical talk” in practice will enable you to translate the science into something that is clinically meaningful for the doctors and their patients. These clinical skills are incredibly valuable and the key to establishing credible peer to peer relationships with your future KOLs.
Also, as a pharmacist, you are familiar with the daily practice of obtaining a patient’s medication history, attending ward rounds as part of a multidisciplinary team, conducting medication reviews, and educating patients on their treatment plan. Simply put, these skills will enable you to truly understand the patient’s needs as an MSL. This is particularly important when you as MSL start to think about the development of patient resources and materials prior to the launch of a new drug. Frequent clinical education sessions during hospital grand rounds, nurse in services, and pharmacy journal clubs during your pharmacy days will prove to be an extremely valuable skill in your transition into the MSL role.
Very important, your clinical hospital pharmacy experience will also provide you with an understanding of the hospital politics, nuances, and hierarchy – all of which are key for an MSL to understand when conducting strategic account planning and more specifically, planning KOL engagements, medical education sessions/events, and clinical trial site selection to name a few.
Does being a pharmacist make you a good (or even better) MSL candidate?
It depends. Qualifications on their own are never enough. As we all know, there are numerous soft skills one needs to have to be a successful MSL (candidate), of which communication is the most important one.
Speaking from my own background as a PhD (MB) and having trained many (PhD) MSL candidates, having that clinical understanding (you have as a pharmacist/medical doctor/ nurse practitioner) gives you that competitive advantage, something many PhD don’t have. So, are pharmacists good or even better MSL candidates? Pharmacists come with a good solid clinical background they can leverage, but they still need to tick the usual soft skill boxes as well to eventually become an MSL. You’ll know if you were a better candidate when they offer you the MSL job.
Advice for pharmacist contemplating becoming an MSL
Don’t underestimate the value of your clinical knowledge and expertise gained during your pharmacy training! The path to breaking into the MSL role can be challenging especially in the absence of any prior pharmaceutical industry experience. Don’t be afraid to try different roles in the pharmaceutical industry to start with before becoming an MSL as it will provide you with a good introduction to the industry and a stepping stone towards the MSL role. To maximize your chances to become an MSL, start to upskill yourself on: the role of the MSL, how pharma works and your role as an MSL in it; and how the MSL interview process is conducted and how you should best prepare for that interview to make a good impression. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to either of us.
Diana Nazemian Pour, BPharm
Dr Martijn Bijker, PhD MSc
Founder of “from SCIENCE to PHARMA” – the most comprehensive global online Medical Science Liaison (MSL) training platform; helping Bachelors, Masters, PhDs, MDs, and PharmDs to maximize their chances of becoming an MSL
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