Culture in Medical Affairs: Is your organization too focused on the “D” degree?

When reading many job postings, it is clear that the pharmaceutical industry and, more specifically, medical affairs departments are putting an increasing emphasis on the ‘D’ degree.  Doing so cuts out many highly qualified individuals.  Take Physician Assistants, Registered Nurses, or Pharmacists that have not returned to school to obtain their Pharm.D.  They do not qualify for these positions and will be overlooked by the Human Resources screener.  However, these particular professions often times possess the qualities necessary to become a successful MSL.

Doctorate level degrees certainly provide the scientific background needed to become a successful MSL, but that is only part of the story.  The MSL Society conducted a survey of medical affairs professionals as well as medical affairs managers in 2015 on Competencies that contribute most to MSL success. (ref)  A surprising finding from this survey was that scientific and technical expertise was the least important for driving business objectives.  With that said, focus on ‘D’ degrees places much more of an emphasis on this particular skill than this survey suggest should be allocated.  Instead, there are other skills that warrant more attention.

KOL management is a common job function of MSLs and often times a measure of success.  Being that Health Care Providers are becoming increasingly busy, each encounter must be more direct and productive.  Being an excellent communicator and delivering your message efficiently will most likely result in a follow-up encounter with the busy HCP.  In the same study conducted by the MSL Society (ref), it is suggested that being an ‘excellent communicator’ is the skill that matters most.  Interestingly, in the same survey, the MSL Society also found that this area is where MSL managers feel their MSLs are the least effective.  This skill is not something commonly taught in doctorate programs, it is something that is innate in an individual, or learned through experience.

The message that needs to be delivered is also an important factor and directly related to communications skills.  If a medication has a technical component to its delivery, the MSL must be able to convey the appropriate technique to the HCP.  For example, a medication utilized in the OR for post-operative pain control must be injected differently from routine practice in order to obtain the desired outcomes. Who is more qualified to deliver this message, an RN whose previous position was as a first assist nurse or a Pharm.D. whose previous experience is with an opioid pain reliever?  No question that both individuals are qualified, but who is more poised to deliver the message in the surgeon’s lingo?

Finally, experience should trump the degree.  The level of knowledge about industry-specific things like compliance, health economic, and KOL management is not something taught in Pharm.D. programs.  Additionally, many Medical Affairs professionals have been in their role since long before ‘D’ degrees became the norm.  Thinking about pharmacists specifically, an individual with a Masters in Pharmacy and 10 years experience as an MSL may be a better candidate than a Pharm.D. with 2 years experience as an MSL.

With the ever-changing landscape of Medical Affairs, less emphasis should be placed on the degree a candidate possesses.  More attention should be paid to drivers of success.  Specifically, communication skills, delivery of product-specific messaging, and experience are important factors that can predict success, and none of these skills are requirements for earning a doctorate level degree.


Written by Brian Faley, Pharm.D., BCPS