Make your training relevant for the modern MSL

Written by Dr Tyler Ray, Medical Advisor on Tuesday 27th April 2021

The healthcare landscape has significantly transformed in the past two decades. Advancements in digital health technology, the availability of ‘big data’, a focus on a value-for-patient economic environment and the COVID-19 pandemic are just some of the major factors driving current trends. These changes have highlighted the importance and relevance of medical affairs teams in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Training for medical affairs teams needs to keep pace with the increasing demands of the healthcare landscape. So, what do you need to do to ensure your training is fit to build the multifaceted and highly skilled medical affairs team of today?

In the past 20 years, medical affairs teams, with Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) at their core, have evolved from performing a supportive function to being widely considered the ‘third strategic pillar’ of biopharmaceutical companies. Key to strategic and value propositions, medical affairs teams are increasingly recognised as contributing as much value to organisations as their research and development teams and commercial counterparts.1

MSLs now provide a crucial link between healthcare companies and healthcare decision-makers, widely defined as physicians, payers and patients. They are central to providing scientific advice, training and insight generation, which are essential for overall company strategy development and implementation. External engagement and exploration of mutual scientific and clinical interests by MSLs also adds significant value to clinical practice, ultimately benefiting patients. Healthcare decision-makers and providers are increasingly forming alliances with MSL teams to improve their understanding of the complex science and targeted medical treatments that are widely available. These alliances are crucial for evidence- and value-based clinical decision-making, and deliver substantial benefits for research, healthcare education and patients.2 Consequently, training of medical affairs teams, particularly MSLs, needs to enable teams to provide these essential services as partners in healthcare.

What do MSLs need?

To explore what modern MSL training needs are, it is important to first understand what makes ‘ideal’ training. The right training should:

  • Meet the needs of the company, learner and stakeholder
  • Align with the learner’s role and responsibilities
  • Be shaped by robust adult learning theories that inform all aspects of health profession education, from mission and vision statements to outcomes, implementation and evaluation.3

To help define the training needs of MSLs or learners, we need to understand the core role and responsibilities of the MSL. What knowledge and competencies does an MSL need? What level of confidence in their understanding, skills, ethics and behaviours are required to contribute to today’s healthcare landscape?

The function of the MSL is multifaceted and varies based on multiple factors, including, but not limited to, company needs, geographical location and the stage of a product’s life cycle. The role and responsibilities of the MSL can be broadly defined by three key domains.

  1. Knowledge expertise: MSLs are experts in communicating complex scientific and medical evidence to a variety of stakeholders, as well as having a deep understanding of their native healthcare system
  2. Information management: MSLs have a core role in a company’s generation, compilation and dissemination of data and scientific content
  3. Stakeholder engagement: MSLs interact with two key stakeholders: internal (company) personnel and external associates or healthcare decision-makers, such as physicians and payers

In addition to the above, the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way MSLs and healthcare decision-makers interact. MSL patterns of engagement had to immediately adapt to incorporate virtual ways of communication and engagement. In a June 2020 European Union 5 report, it was noted that 12% of medical doctors preferred to stop all MSL engagement, 55% wanted to convert to virtual and 33% opted to continue with an face-to-face engagement.4 This suggests virtual MSL engagement with healthcare decision-makers is likely to continue with the balance of face-to-face versus digital engagements dependent on the clinician’s needs and preferences needing to be considered.

What should my MSL training include?

So, what do the MSLs of today need their training to incorporate? Ask yourself if your current training programme:

  • Covers all aspects of the role and responsibilities of the MSL
    • Enhances the MSL’s understanding of scientific content as well as encompasses the skills required to perform additional aspects of the role for example managing multiple stakeholders and information generation
  • Embeds opportunities to enhance and practice digital skills
  • Integrates required MSL competencies for example stakeholder engagement, presentation skills, insight generation and strategic planning

A great training programme is key to maximising your team’s potential. Combining the knowledge of your specific MSL team needs with specialist learning and development (L&D) partners who understand not just scientific content, but also best practices in adult learning theory, appropriate learning technologies and regulatory requirements of the field can equip your team to achieve your company’s vision, mission and goals.


1. McKinsey & Company. A vision for medical affairs in 2025. Available at: (accessed April 2021).

2. Doran E et al. Empirical uncertainty and moral contest: a qualitative analysis of the relationship between medical specialists and the pharmaceutical industry in Australia. Soc Sci Med 2006;62:1510–1519.

3. Knowles MS, Holtan EF and Swanson RA. In: The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. 6th ed. Oxford, UK: A Butterworth-Heinemann Title; 2005.

4. European Union 5 Report. Emerging from COVID-19 Voice of the Patient & Physician and Implications for Pharma. June 2020

OPEN Health’s L&D team brings together unique skill sets and a wealth of healthcare training and communications experience, which means we can offer high-quality, bespoke, self-directed learning programs to our clients. If you would like to hear more about how we collaborate with our clients to design, develop and deliver competitive training programs, please get in touch.

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