It used to be easy to meet with thought leaders: A quick call or email, hop on a plane, meet in the office or hospital café and then discuss new data, trends in medical education, or how to fine tune drug administration. Pre-COVID, medical congresses were a valuable conduit to conduct business over lunch or between sessions to maintain long-standing relationships or introductions. That was then.

How are professional relationships formed and maintained in the absence of face-to-face meetings? How should scientific information be shared now and in the future? These are the challenges pharmaceutical and medical device companies are facing with medical science liaisons (MSLs) and sales professionals alike.

Maintaining HCP-Industry Relationships During COVID

Industry field forces want to share new data and discuss best practices and clinical insights that drive expanded awareness about a therapeutic, medicine, or device. Meanwhile, clinicians may want general overviews to learn how their clinical colleagues are practicing or to better understand the health outcomes. The bottom line: Clinicians want new information, insights, samples, and the opportunity to share opinions with their peers. So, what are the best practices for facilitating and maintaining professional medical relationships now that traditional venues are not possible?

Adaptation will be key and life sciences companies must consider: How can the shift in mindset using systems thinking apply to professional relationships in medical affairs, commercial operations, education, and news? Might the construct borrow from strategic alliance and map thinking to build relationships with other non-competitor businesses that target the same/similar market(s)? To begin to answer those questions, companies can follow five best practices:

1. Living the alliance

  • Ensure the right culture, building trust, communication, and leadership; identifying a common language that is mutually beneficial to all

2. Collaboration

  • Optimize resources to enhance communication and trust
  • Establish joint objectives

3. Speed, process, and innovation

  • Leverage network and relationships, tapping into the expertise of each stakeholder to produce, maintain, and sustain communication

4. Growth

  • Provide or create the right resources stakeholders seek
  • Strive for improvement at every step

5. Value for all parties

  • Jointly understand missions and goals of all
  • Assess strategic goals as interactions are completed
Source: Adapted from Kaplan1

How Does Audience Engagement Function Now?

The pandemic, as well as other factors that emerged over the past few years, have made HCP engagement different in other ways, including:

  • Most medical congresses have shifted to virtual platforms; attendees can write in questions to experts.
  • Medical-related questions by healthcare providers can be posed to sales reps who can then provide information, or direct the query to the company’s medical information department or to MSLs to address questions.
  • MSLs establish and maintain relationships with thought leaders and accounts at academic institutions, hospitals, and community practices to provide insight about clinical trial or real-world data that may have an impact on the way clinicians treat and manage patients.

This also means that field forces in companies are changing and many are creating new policies for engagement given the increased reliance on virtual interactions. Companies that have a loyal user base, such as media companies or publishers, are at an advantage as these healthcare professionals use online platforms to learn about new trends in the field. For example, media companies or publishers can offer customized educational programs to meet the demands of audiences and industry partners to provide the most relevant education. Additionally, if rethinking geographic boundaries are needed by industry field forces, online (virtual) platforms with engaged audiences have a significant advantage.

How Can We Elevate Thought Leader Relationships Now?

Instead of just working to maintain relationships during this time, companies should also be exploring ways to elevate their thought leader relationships. Key questions companies should be considering include:

  • What is the value of thought leader think tanks to help solve a question or obtain a clinical insight?
  • How can important scientific exchanges among groups be facilitated smoothly?
  • What are novel ways to facilitate introductions to become a trusted resource to community-level healthcare providers?
  • What legal or compliance regulations may need revising?

One area to explore may be telehealth, which has proven to be effective and can have positive therapeutic effects on patients and increase efficiencies in health services. These advances in technology can facilitate healthcare education, but some caveats remain. For example, in a healthcare professional’s ability to use digital resources to access material.2 In our recent survey, nearly two-thirds of more than 3,700 respondents reported anticipating an increase in use of both video conferencing and appointment scheduling and follow-up technology, among a list of various products and services.

So, what are the best ways to maximize activity and relationships now and in the future? Whether personal or professional, relationships take effort, hard work, and persistence. That has always been the case. Payoffs and success metrics, however, may need to change. Systems thinking in medical communication is essentially the ability to develop and maintain interconnectedness. The connections go on to synthesize as larger, more defined practices. Feedback loops to check processes are part of the mechanism to assess success, much like integrative physiology—a series of checks and balances to maintain balance.


1. Kaplan, R. S., Norton, D. P., & Rugelsjoen, B. (2010). “Managing Alliances with the Balanced Scorecard.” Harvard Business Review, 88(1/2), 114–121.

2. Stevens, A. (2020). “Telehealth in the Age of COVID-19 and Beyond: Clinical Information Needs of Healthcare Providers.” Healio Strategic Solutions.

  • Adrienne Stevens, EdD, MBA

    Adrienne Stevens, EdD, MBA is Vice President, Head of Scientific Strategy at Healio Strategic Solutions. Over the course of her diverse career, Adrienne has been recognized as an innovative team leader in Medical Affairs and in medical education. Adrienne is committed to advancing medical excellence and alliances for ongoing competitive advantage with creativity and passion.


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