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The KOL Conundrum: Love Them Or Leave Them

Contributed Commentary by Charles Mathews

August 9, 2018 | The diagnostics industry often has difficulty effectively working with Key Opinion Leader (KOL) clinicians. All too often diagnostic companies do not even really know who the relevant KOLs in their space are. Part of the issue is that diagnostics companies are often rooted in the science and technology of developing their unique instruments and methodologies. Therefore, they are one step removed from the clinicians that will use these tools in clinical practice. Sometimes innovators don’t realize how important these influencers are until a product has already been designed and marketed. At that point it can be difficult to realign the products design to meet the needs of these key customers.

Conversely, some companies are overly sensitive to their KOLs supporters. They bring them in for advisory boards and dinners and hang on their every word. They develop a product that exactly fits the needs of a KOL working in one of the world’s thought leading institutions. Unfortunately, there are not enough of these world leading institutions to make a marketplace. Community practice physicians may refuse to adopt the test because it doesn’t fit their needs.

Surely there must be a better balance that can be struck. We must find a way to engage and leverage KOLs without handing over the strategic control and direction of the company. Below are some ideas and concepts that will help the diagnostics industry find that better alignment.

Consider that there are different types of KOLs with different wants/needs.

We often fall into the trap of viewing every KOL as the same type.  We must recognize that there are different types of KOLs and they have their own unique interests. Some like to have a hand in creating something new while others are simply seeking financial gain. Most would appreciate an opportunity to be involved in a seminal publication but almost all are simply looking to have an impact. It is best not to treat them as customers, but rather to clearly articulate that you would like to have them on-board as thought partners throughout the design, development, and marketing of a diagnostic tool.


Engage early during R&D then continue engagement throughout commercialization.

Often the same KOLs who can help you conceptualize and develop great products can help you as these products hit the marketplace. We can all agree that we do not necessarily want them in an explicit sales and marketing role, but can’t we also agree that a conference presentation that resonates at a large clinical meeting can have just as big or maybe even bigger impact than an army of sales representatives? Similarly, many KOLs are realizing that reimbursement is a key barrier to access for the products that they believe in (especially those they had a hand in developing). There are smart ways to leverage KOL support during payer engagements. However, this only works if you have a well thought out KOL management strategy.

Learn what KOLs are good at and realize their limitations.

KOLs can be effective at providing insight into the future of a particular care paradigm, which can be really helpful. However, we must also realize that it may be some time before that vision becomes a reality. In the interim it will be imperative to constantly reflect upon how our products and tools will be used in the community setting, which reflects the broader marketplace. This may involve working with KOLs to get a list of new product concepts/ideas, then using market research to winnow that list down to what is practical/feasible in the market.

Consider deploying pharma best practices such as KOL mapping, especially if working on companion diagnostics.

There is a lot we can learn from our colleagues on the pharma side. One area in particular has been the proactive development of KOL maps and segmentation analysis. This helps you get an understanding who the KOLs are and what types of KOLs are involved in a given marketplace. Once you know the key KOLs you can map them at a regional level to figure out who they influence. You can also engage them in important discussions regarding the future of guideline language. With the increasing availability of data and analysis tools it has become much easier to design/execute. If working on a companion diagnostic, your pharma partner may already have the clinician maps in place, but may not be thinking about how to connect these key individuals to testing-related guidelines specifically. 

Editor’s Note: Charles Mathews will be further discussing these concepts at “Leveraging Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) to Build the Bridge Between R&D and Commercialization of Companion and Non-Companion Diagnostics,” an evening workshop at the Next Generation Dx Summit on Thursday, August 23. This session will focus on best practices for smoothing the transition from bench to clinical laboratory. In this session, course leaders will discuss key considerations for working with KOLs at each stage of the diagnostic life cycle (discovery, development, and commercialization). They will describe the development of integrated KOL networks and how to leverage these networks to increase sales and support broader market adoption. The session will tackle how to leverage KOLs to support payer coverage/reimbursement for novel assays (do’s and don’ts) and provide specific guidance about how the unique aspects of companion diagnostics can be leveraged. Finally, the course leaders will share ideas for how to conduct KOL mapping, identifying “rising stars,” and creating metrics for tracking the impact of KOL programs. 

Charles Mathews leads ClearView’s diagnostics industry initiatives as Principal. He provides strategic insights into commercialization and reimbursement approaches for a range of in vitro diagnostic platform and kit developers, laboratories, and pharma players launching products with companion diagnostics. He can be reached at