The oncology market is growing in both size and complexity, driven by new immunotherapy and targeted therapies. There are more than 7,500 oncology drugs currently in development1 and by 2020, oncology is expected to account for nearly 30% of the pharmaceutical industry’s product pipeline with global revenue forecast to grow from $118.6 billion in 2016 to $241.0 billion in 2023.2

As life sciences companies race to get therapies to market, strong, collaborative relationships with scientific leaders—or key opinion leaders (KOLs)—is key to successful product development and launching new treatments. This is especially true as competition increases for access to these experts.

Oncology scientific leaders are most often the first adopters of oncology drugs and can make or break a new drug’s acceptance. They are unusually influential in not only informing physicians of new therapies, but also in helping patients and policy makers understand their efficacy and value. In fact, nearly two-thirds of oncologists say that KOLs have the most impact on their treatment behavior.3

For life sciences companies, it is increasingly important for medical and commercial teams to build strong relationships with these experts in the global oncology community. However, engagement is challenging given the large and complex ecosystem of oncology experts.

Challenged by Size, Complexity, and Tools

In 2017, oncology was one of the largest medical specialties with more than 18,000 oncologists in the U.S. Identifying a scientific thought leader requires complex data mining, and thorough understanding of their expertise, interests, relationships, and affiliations. Mapping this information absorbs significant resources and countless hours. It also relies on accurate, up-to-date data, which, in such a fast-moving field, is not always accessible.

“One of the biggest challenges when engaging with scientific experts in oncology is uncovering their motivators, and understanding what drives their behavior,” says Rodrigo Fernandez-Baca, General Manager, Clovis Oncology. “Oncology is such a broad field that connecting insights on KOLs with the value you can bring as a company is as great a challenge as it is a competitive imperative.”

The ability to aggregate all of the insights and intelligence on scientific leaders in oncology is also challenging in such a fast-moving environment that encompasses millions of information sources such as medical journals, clinical trials, and events across thousands of experts. Identifying the most knowledgeable clinicians in a specific area is difficult especially as oncologists often specialize in particular cancers, which requires companies to be more targeted in their outreach.

“With scientific leaders, the information needs and what they are looking for from a pharmaceutical company are much deeper than what you see in other categories,” says Maria Whitman, Managing Principal and leader of the oncology and specialty therapeutics practice at ZS Associates. “It’s a much more complex conversation. They want to engage in peer-to-peer dialogue on the potential of a molecule, including off-label and clinical development. One of the key conversations right now, for instance, is around the integration of targeted and immunotherapies.”4

Traditional tools used by many life sciences companies to manage scientific leader engagement are fragmented, limiting visibility of engagement activity across the organization. Organizations often duplicate outreach to oncology experts—arguably a company’s most important customer. In a recent survey, thought leaders say they are often called by the same pharmaceutical company numerous times. “In just one month, 17 different people from the same company reached out to me,” said one respondent.5 With teams sometimes overlapping and failing to coordinate their activities, the leader’s overall experience for the KOL can be frustrating.

Supplement Local Knowledge with Analytics

Streamlining engagement, while effectively building and maintaining long and meaningful relationships with scientific experts, is a top priority for oncology-focused life sciences companies. As a result, many are looking at technology for help.

Today, new solutions offer life sciences companies’ medical science liaisons (MSLs) significant benefits that when used to supplement personal relationships can make their jobs easier and more effective. One cloud-based data platform consolidates tens of thousands of oncology experts and millions of activities worldwide into a single, enterprise-wide source. The data is continuously updated in real-time, too, ensuring that the information is accurate. “The most valuable data is current data. In oncology, it is critical to have information that is not only relevant but also captured, delivered, and updated in real-time,” adds Fernandez-Baca.

A top 10 pharmaceutical company deployed this platform globally after struggling with internal inefficiencies from its legacy tools and processes for years. The company was investing in more than 100 different, fragmented projects to find relevant scientific leaders. There were duplicate efforts and no centralized approach to identifying and engaging with these important oncology experts.

By adopting a globally unified data platform with KOL identification, profiling, and segmentation capabilities, the company has been able to identify and target customers and customer groups in seconds, as opposed to months. The system also provides global visibility of the company’s KOL activity, so it can see which team is focusing on which experts, and manage and coordinate across the organization accordingly. For example, the company can avoid disturbing KOLs for small and potentially less relevant projects when another team might really need their strategic guidance for more complex endeavors. And, there’s no more engagement overlap. In short, the system drives a better customer experience to nurture long-term relationships with influential experts in oncology.

With modern advancements, life sciences companies can take a data-driven approach that complements local market knowledge and personal relationships to best engage with scientific experts. Logic and subjective decision-making will always be an important factor, but also using data-driven technologies to identify the right experts in the first place saves most of the legwork to improve operational efficiency. By removing manual effort, new technologies free teams to focus on the work that requires strategic thinking and human logic. They make their processes faster, more efficient, replicable, and compliant. And that is the true power of technology.


1. “The Next Wave of Innovation in Oncology,” McKinsey Cancer Center, September 2016. For more: McKinsey Cancer Centre: The next wave of innovation in oncology, Sept 2016.

2. “Global Oncology Market to 2023,” by Orbis Research, July 2017. For more:

3. “Oncology Insights,” Cardinal Health, December 2017. For more:

4. “What’s Driving the Growth of the Oncology Field Medical,” by Sarah Jarvis. The Active Ingredient, ZS Associates, October 2015. For more:

5. “What KOLs Really Want from Pharma,” Uptake Strategies: 2014, December 2014. For more: Uptake Strategies: 2014: What KOLS Really Want From Pharma.

  • Kilian Weiss

    Kilian Weiss is General Manager for Veeva Link at Veeva Systems. For more than 15 years, Kilian has worked with life sciences executives around the world to enhance collaboration between the industry and their customers across the scientific community, key opinion leaders, and healthcare organizations.


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