Key Opinion Leader Services Companies: the Creation of Useful Idiots and Usefully Idiotic Organizations

In researching the conflicts of interest of the University of California "36," I stumbled upon a fascinating corner of the pharmaceutical/ biotechnology/ medical device marketing universe, the companies that find and manage key opinion leaders (KOLs), also known as "thought leaders."  Reviewing their own marketing materials reveals how KOLs truly are health care corporate marketing's useful idiots.

I found three companies which seem entirely devoted to the adoption, care and feeding of KOLs, plus numerous companies, including some medical education and communication companies (MECCs) that provide KOL-related products and services.  I will first describe the companies briefly, then draw upon their marketing materials to underline what KOLs are really about.

Leadership in Medicine Inc

This is the company I found first, because one of its directors is a member of the UC 36, the group of top university leaders who threatened to sue the university to increase their already generous pensions.

Leadership in Medicine Inc's web-site describes its reason for being thus:
IF YOU NEED TO KNOW who are the most prominent, admired, and influential actors in healthcare, how they are interconnected, and why, you need our expertise.

Given how vastly complex are the relationships among providers, researchers, and other significant actors in healthcare, it is vital to focus on key opinion leaders (KOLs) at local, regional, and global levels, and to understand the ties among them.

Its clients are:
Over 80 client companies
* All of the top 15 largest pharmaceuticals
* 8 of the 10 largest biotechs
* 5 of the 10 largest medical device companies

A graphic on its "experience" page listed the following companies: Baxter, Wyeth, Lilly, Roche, Gilead, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Abbott Laboratories, Genzyme, Bristol-Myers-Squibb, Medtronic, Johnson and Johnson, Genentech, and Covidien.


Company description:
As our name implies, we are a company devoted to providing Key Opinion Leader software and Key Opinion Leader Management services for pharmaceutical, biotechnology and device companies.

The company's graphic client list included: Cephalon, Scios, Novartis, Schering-Plough King Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer, Genentech, Reliant Pharmaceuticals, McNeil (division of Johnson and Johnson, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Cytogen, Health Products Research, Shire, Reckitt Benckiser, Protein Design Labs, and Odyssey Pharmaceuticals.

Thought Leader Select

The relevant parts of the company description:
Thought Leader Select is a Chapel Hill, NC-based private research and consulting firm serving the biopharmaceutical and healthcare industries.
We serve these industries and the medical community at large by assessing medical experts (known as 'thought leaders' and 'key opinion leaders')....

Perusal of the materials used by these companies, and other companies which market KOL or thought leader related services makes the nature of the relationship between KOLs and commercial health care firms, and the purpose of employing KOLs clear.

KOLs are Employed by Marketing Departments to do Marketing

The best example comes from a description of a KOL information technology application sold by Nagarro:
A web-based application was developed by Nagarro to help the marketing department of a global pharmaceutical company exploit Key Opinion Leader (KOL) information in order to promote products and remain ahead of its competition.

Problem Description

In today s fast-paced competitive environment, pharmaceutical companies cannot solely rely on superior products to succeed. Well organized marketing departments help sales departments reach goals and give companies an edge over competition, but without access to valuable resources, like KOLs, they are ineffective. KOLs influence the medical community and ultimately the end users of pharmaceutical products.
Pharmaceutical companies that are able to identify and work with KOLs will be better positioned to compete....


Creation of market intelligence from highly specialized and customizable reports containing previously unavailable aggregate data....

Ability to group KOLs by product knowledge and associations in order to better promote products

Ability to maximize ROI from KOL related events

Enhanced sales and marketing productivity through streamlining of complex multi-source information

That makes it crystal clear that marketers use KOLs to market, to sell products. While at times KOLs might actually be used to advise health care corporations about clinical or scientific issues, that is hardly their major point. KOLs are almost always hired to market by marketing departments.

In case someone might argue that this is only one example, let us look at materials from the other companies.

KOL LLC described the usefulness of KOLs thus:
Everyone recognizes the value of opinion leaders (OL), or thought leaders. While national level OLs may not write many prescriptions they influence thousands of prescribers and hence prescriptions through their research, lectures, publications and their participation on advisory boards, committees, editorial boards, professional societies and guidelines/consensus document development. Regional level OLs are often involved in state societies or legislative initiatives in addition to their speaking and publications. While local level OLs may not publish, they provide advice to local colleagues and may speak at grand rounds. And who are the ‘rising stars’ in your therapeutic area?

It is imperative that you know the OLs in your market at a national, regional and local influence level as well as those ‘rising stars’.

This is a bit more indirect, but it is clear that the goal is to "influence prescribers" to prescribe, not provide scientific or clinical advice to the company.

Leadership in Medicine Inc's materials also continually emphasized the point of KOLs is to influence, for example, they boasted of pioneering analyses "to assess paths of influence in healthcare," developed a particular tool called "Centrality Ranking" to "provide fine-grained ratings of KOLs' influence," and claimed to "have identified, profiled, and mapped the influence of tens of thousands of individual KOLs...." The clear implication is that KOLs' influence is the central consideration, and what else is this influence good for other than to sell products, and perhaps advocate for corporations in general?

When KOLs are Involved, Many Activities that Appear to be Educational or Scientific Really Are For Marketing

Strikingly, KOL LLC claimed its role in guideline development:
Guidelines produced by national societies are optimal, but often can be a slow, painful and expensive process to develop. KOL, L.L.C. can provide a faster alternative. We have experience convening a panel of experts in a therapeutic area. We serve a project management role to ensure the timelines and deliverables are met. We have access to a medical writing team of 25 healthcare professionals who can write the initial drafts, as our experience tells us it is easier for experts to edit, than to write from scratch.

There has been growing realization that guidelines may be biased by commercial sponsorship and by the participation by individuals with conflicts of interest. The KOL LLC marketing materials suggest, however, that guidelines have become purpose-built marketing vehicles through the participation of selected KOLs with allegiances to drug, device and biotechnology companies. As an aside, note that guideline-development services includes the participation of a team of ghost-writers who will write the first drafts, a function that naive academics might have thought should be that of clinical and scientific experts.

For another example, KOL LLC asserted it could manage "investigator meetings," :
We’ll help you better plan to maximize the communication of the trial results through targeted abstracts, posters, publications and lectures.
Due to the time constraints placed on Clinical Research Departments, many times ‘research mills’ are selected as the trial sites. This is fine, but who is going to publish the results and stand up and present the results at national, regional and local meetings. We can provide you advice and counsel about how to involve your KOLs effectively, while maintaining your aggressive timelines.

The goal of KOL management here is for the company to control how the research is disseminated. Note also the cynical view of "research mills," which likely refers to contract research organizations. Do we really think that CROs are used by commercial firms because they do better research?

Key Leading Organizations

A bonus from reading through the offerings on KOL management was to discover another related business that has not been subject of polite conversation before. Leadership in Medicine Inc put it this way:
Equally essential is recognizing the roles played by key leading organizations (KLOs) such as medical institutions, payers, professional organizations, patient groups, government entities, and journals in structuring KOL activities and relationships, since those are the stages on which KOLs perform.

Key Leading Organizations (KLOs) apparently include influential organizations, e.g., academic medical institutions, medical societies, and patient advocacy groups that can be deliberately turned into organizations of useful idiots for marketing purposes. Note that we and others have discussed how institutional conflicts of interest and conflicts of interest affecting leaders of of such organizations can lead to bias in favor of commercial interests. But what Leadership in Medicine Inc has written suggests that such organizations can be deliberately taken over to function as industry's fellow travelers.

Similarly, Thought Leader Select advertised services to manage organizations to support "thought leadership":
Through Centers, all of our research and assessment skills culminate in our evaluation of universities, influential clinics, and research foundations for a holistic approach to thought leadership in the medical community. With centers of excellence assessments we take a drill-down approach, starting at the academic medical centers, then moving into affiliated hospitals and clinics....


Industry spokespeople and key opinion leaders tout themselves as clinical, educational, and/or scientific experts chosen for their expertise to advance medicine, science and public health.  There are documented instances (e.g., see posts here and here) in which defectors from marketing departments of commercial health care corporations described KOLs as salespeople who could be more influential hidden within their professional or academic cloaks.  Even some physicians paid to be speakers on behalf of pharmaceutical corporations have acknowledged their role as salespeople in fancy dress (see post here).  There are cases of documents revealed by discovery in legal actions that show how companies planned organized stealth marketing efforts for drugs that included activities by KOLs (e.g., see post here about marketing of Lexapro, and here about Neurontin).

However, the marketing materials used by KOL service companies (for lack of a better name) show that KOLs are largely meant to be stealth marketers, and hired for that purpose, that KOLs participate as marketers in the sorts of activities that to the naive appear to be educational or scientific, and that marketers try to recruit whole organizations, such as medical schools, research organizations, medical societies, and patient advocacy groups as disguised sales organizations.

This goes beyond the problem of bias of physicians, or individual health professionals due to their financial relationships.  It goes beyond the problem of bias of organizations due to their sources of financial support or the financial relationships of their leaders.  It looks like there has been a massive campaign by health care corporate marketers to make useful idiots out of possibly a majority of medical academics and academic, professional, and supposedly patient-centered organizations.  This appears to be a massive, cynical effort to hollow out our once respected health care institutions and professionals in the service of marketing.

A final word to any individuals reading this who are paid by corporate marketers to be KOLs.  If you think that you are paid for educational or scientific purposes, you likely have been made into a chump.  The people who did this to you were likely not acting in your best interests, or those of society, but to cynically market their product and increase their own earnings.  If you doubt this, look at the materials cited above.  You really don't want to continue being chumps, do you?