The (inevitable) digital transformation of Medical Affairs

digital transformation

Working closely with Medical Affairs (MA) leaders and their teams, we have been hearing about their ongoing evolution and digital transformation for years. As in many other sectors, the pace of this transformation has accelerated substantially since the pandemic. Reviewing the recent literature on the topic, it is interesting to note how many predictions are already coming true, but also where more work is needed to bring the visions to life.

A Vision for Medical Affairs

In ‘A Vision for Medical Affairs in 2025’– a recent McKinsey & Company report – the authors provided thought-provoking insights into the evolution of MA, mirroring what we have been hearing first-hand. 

The report concluded that digital offers the ability to harness untapped insights through new or underused types of data and analytics, including real-world evidence, customer interaction, electronic health record, and internal data. It also highlighted that digital provides new ways for MA members to connect and engage with stakeholders. Healthcare providers (HCPs), payers, and patients can now access medical information at their fingertips and they expect more from pharma than in the past. This offers new opportunities to engage with stakeholders beyond just physicians. However, MA must play a critical role in ensuring that digital information is factual, relevant, digestible, and tailored to the intended audience.

In addition to embracing the power of data and analytics, MA needs to get comfortable with novel digital engagement techniques. The pandemic accelerated the uptake of virtual meeting and event technologies. Nonetheless, many of these initiatives continue to occur on an ad hoc basis, instead of ongoing engagement throughout the year, indicating that there is room for improvement.

Evolution of the MSL Function

Earlier this year, Peter J. Piliero predicted several major change points for Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs), including:

  • MSLs will engage a broader range of external stakeholders beyond traditional physicians, including nurses, physician assistants, patients, academics, payers and policymakers, and digital opinion leaders (DOLs).
  • Insights will increasingly drive strategic decisions and actions, and will go beyond gap analyses to inform early clinical development and strategic portfolio decisions, with patient insights and real-world data playing larger roles. Digital tools will help teams more successfully capture and analyse unstructured data to identify actionable insights.
  • MSLs will drive patient-centricity in drug development and transform patient engagement to a model in which patients are seen as essential industry partners throughout the brand life cycle. 

This increased focus on patients and diverse stakeholders will undoubtedly be facilitated by the accelerated uptake of digital tools and virtual collaboration solutions.

Considerations for effective communication of medical information

Someone else who knows a thing or two about the evolution of Medical Affairs is Eddie Power from Pfizer. In Considerations for Effective Communication of Medical Information, he highlighted a number of key considerations, including:

  • Traditional channels and formats for communicating medical information are undergoing substantial transformation.
  • MA and the healthcare community are increasingly embracing new ways of thinking about scientific data, tailoring this to different channels.
  • MA is empowered to shape new standards in communication of medical information.
  • MA needs to develop capabilities to easily move between distinct environments (e.g., one-to-one, one-to-many, in-person, synchronous virtual, asynchronous).
  • It will be key to understand the healthcare systems, patient journeys, and HCP responsibilities that determine information needs.

Particularly, he emphasised that there are consequences of the digital shift that need to be considered to effectively communicate medical information. This includes the flexible information access, shorter attention spans, and desire for more self-serve and asynchronous (over-time, anytime) interactions among HCPs, as well as the need to establish authentic virtual relationships.

For MA, this will mean:

  • Ongoing training.
  • Evolving abilities to share content on-demand with HCPs and re-examined policies for communicating with HCPs virtually.
  • The ability of HCPs to access MSLs in-person or virtually based on preference.
  • Changes to medical education.
  • Scientific congresses going hybrid, meaning that (previously in-person) MA activities are now able to be conducted virtually.

Preparing for the next normal: Transformation of Medical Affairs

In 2021 – during the height of the pandemic – Ghosh et al. suggested that, by incorporating the learnings from the rapid digital transformation acceleration at the time, MA can future-proof their organisations. Some of the key pandemic learnings highlighted by the authors include that MA should:

  • Anticipate and address the changing information needs of HCPs in real time.
  • Upskill to gain expertise in areas such as evolving guidelines, government regulations, recommendations of global and local associations, and digital channels for scientific communication, as well as the application of artificial intelligence and big data analytics.
  • Work to reduce the global-to-local turn-around times through agile cross-functional and cross-affiliate collaborations.
  • Leverage multi-channel engagement models, while working to overcome digital fatigue by introducing innovative, interactive features such as advanced polling and breakout workshops.
  • Enhance virtual medical education experiences by exploring opportunities beyond didactic webinars such as asynchronous peer-to-peer discussions, on-demand content on webinar platforms, online quizzes and gamification, and more.

Digital transformation in Medical Affairs sparked by the pandemic

Likewise, Furtner et al. (2022) also reviewed the current and future states of MA virtualisation. In the years ahead, we will see this digital transformation play out in various ways. Some key areas of change, as reported by the authors and as seen in our daily client interactions, include:

  • HCP engagement
  • External partnerships
  • Data generation
  • Medical education
  • Digital storytelling

MA teams need to demonstrate specific and innovative digital capabilities in leading diverse partnerships and collaborations across the healthcare ecosystem. Achieving true digital transformation in MA will require appropriate infrastructure and training to promote digital literacy. Digital technology should not be restricted to using digital channels for scientific communication; digital components should be incorporated into all professional activities. 

Where does this leave Medical Affairs?

As mentioned, many of the predictions summarised above match what we are seeing and hearing from our MA partners. MA professionals are emerging as the “owners” of scientific knowledge and data within their organisation, evolving from playing mainly a support function in the past.

As noted in the McKinsey report, best-in-class medical engagement is also evolving. In the near future, I predict that we will see a broad expansion of medical engagement. Touchpoints will be increasingly digital and designed to gather actionable insights and provide tailored information focused on improving outcomes. In 2023, we will see MA engage both patients and payers more than in previous years. Understanding the patient and provider journeys will become key and help identify unmet needs.

Nevertheless, some pharma executives have been resistant to wholly embracing digital transformation. Some may even argue that pharma is still clinging on to the status quo and has not taken advantage of this opportunity to quickly transform. No matter where you stand, it is clear that digital transformation is inevitable. It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when.’


About the author

Natalie YeadonNatalie Yeadon is the CEO and co-founder of Impetus Digital, which offers virtual and hybrid meetings, events, and programmes for life sciences companies. She works with a range of clients, including key opinion leaders, health care providers, patients, payers, and internal stakeholders.