Editorial: Who Truly Drives Overspecialization of MSL Roles?

A long long time ago, in a pharmaceutical era far far away, came the first medical science liaison professionals, who were promoted into this novel role from their former sales role.

These original MSLs were proud of to be MSLs, as this role recognized their achievement in representing the scientific voice of their company with external stakeholders (the academics) who turned up their noses at pharma companies.

As the MSL profession evolved, the MSL professionals themselves evolved. As candidates for this profession are plucked from the talent pool most resembling those external stakeholders (the scientific and healthcare profession).

Pharma companies congratulated themselves on a fantastic innovation.

As with all innovation, the value of novelty turns into the value of a company practice. Someone – probably a committee – now must address internal stakeholder pressures to prove that expensive headcount supporting company practice must be justified.

Yet old school justifications – well-worn “reach and frequency” sales practice and the encompassing “quota” best practice – became problematic for the MSL concept. Because the FDA is watching.

And because, you know: MSLs aren’t supposed to be sales reps.

But what if we were to change their names? “Medical Science Liaison” comes with too much baggage – all those off-label violations and how MSLs whispered among themselves.

What if we were to splinter the MSL role? We can justify this in the name of specialization. Maybe we can argue that different KOL types have different needs and we should therefore serve them different kinds of liaison. Then we can hand some of those liaisons to internal stakeholders who complain they don’t understand MSL value and shut them up for a few months.

I’m beginning to wonder if the MSL profession today, with all its splinters and different loci of internal control, is reflective more of internal stakeholders’ pressures than external stakeholders’ true needs.

Who do you think really drives the overspecialization of MSL roles? External stakeholders? Internal Stakeholders? Maybe even MSL professionals themselves?

Jane Chin, Ph.D.