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Playing Catch-Up: Boosting Medical Affairs Training to Match Evolving Job Requirements

By January 8, 2021January 20th, 2021Bonus Focus

By Jodi Tainton, RN, and Kimberly Blanchard Portland, Ph.D.

It’s no secret that the life sciences industry is getting more complex each day: Customer and stakeholder groups are becoming increasingly sophisticated, evidence requirements are getting more stringent and the need to engage more effectively with key stakeholder groups is paramount.

This growing complexity is driving an important phenomenon: The rise of Medical Affairs as a highly strategic pillar for biopharma companies, alongside Clinical Development and Commercial & Market Access.  McKinsey & Co., in their recent report, A vision for Medical Affairs in 2025, documents this trend that many of us have seen with our own eyes over the past few years.

There is a challenge, however: As Medical Affairs gains in prominence and strategic importance, the capabilities that medical affairs professionals must possess are compounded.  It used to be that strong scientific acumen was the key qualification.  However, as needs in medical affairs have changed, so have the job requirements.  Now, medical affairs professionals need to be highly strategic, think critically, have excellent communications skills and possess strong business acumen to be successful in this evolving environment.

Excellent training is needed to ensure these professionals are prepared for the tasks at hand.  Medical affairs teams are aware of this need, but they’re confronted with a challenge:  The traditional approaches to medical affairs training — and the resources available for it — have not advanced as rapidly as the job requirements.  Here we explore the challenge and what can be done to help.

Rising Importance of Medical Affairs

Medical Affairs has always been an important function within biopharma but, as mentioned above, current trends are making it even more strategically vital.  Customer and stakeholder groups — including physicians, health systems, payers, regulators and patients — are growing increasingly sophisticated and their evidence requirements are becoming more stringent.

As a result, Medical Affairs is playing a vital role before, during and after product launch.  Its ability to engage with medical stakeholders to gain deep insights can provide critical input to clinical trial design, ongoing evidence planning and data generation.  During and after launch, Medical Affairs’ role as a communicator who can deliver medical information and support medical value statements is essential.  To fulfill these sophisticated roles effectively, Medical Affairs personnel need the right training and development.

Challenges Associated with Medical Affairs Training

So, what are the key challenges with medical affairs training?  Before answering that question, it’s important to note that not every biopharma company is the same.  Some handle training differently than others.  As we outline some key challenges, we’ll refer to the most common or typical situations in the industry, knowing full well that there is a lot of variability out there.


The first challenge is related to mindset.  Some companies haven’t fully quantified the gap that has opened up between the evolving job requirements and the existing capabilities of their medical affairs teams.  In this situation, a company might still have the mindset that scientific/medical training is enough for those team members.

Limited Investment of Time and Money

The second challenge flows from the first.  Companies that haven’t fully quantified the need are less likely to invest the optimal amount of resources of both time and money into capability development for medical affairs teams.

Few Dedicated Learning & Development Resources

Unlike commercial teams, most medical teams do not have dedicated L&D resources, so training usually comes from peer mentorship and on-the-job training.  There may be additional training from HR but these are typically not tailored toward medical roles.  These factors make it more difficult for medical teams to improve skills needed for their day-to-day roles.

Downstream Sharing of “Traditional” Training Approaches

Complicating the situation is that medical affairs teams are not just expected to receive training … they often must deliver it.  For example, they regularly deliver scientific or medical updates to commercial team members or to customers, with typically no training themselves on how to design and deliver effective training.  This often leads to less than effective training of cross-functional team members.

Medical Affairs Training Needs and How to Meet Them

There isn’t a “one size fits all” solution for meeting the evolving training needs in Medical Affairs.  Companies need to think about how to develop a long-term capability-building roadmap with dedicated resources.  How they deliver on that roadmap must be tailored to the company size, available resources, team sizes and needs.

Some companies may outsource this while others may have enough internal resources to do a hybrid model for delivery.  Regardless of how they deliver on their plan, they must adjust their mindset to prioritize this capability building or they will be left behind as other companies and medical affairs teams evolve into the future.

Regardless of how companies adapt, we have identified some Medical Affairs training needs that are consistent across the industry.  At a high level, these training needs can be grouped into three categories: Strategic Planning, Critical Thinking and Communications.

Strategic Planning

Strategic planning involves being able to articulate an objective, then think several steps ahead while weighing potential actions and reactions to plot the best pathway to that objective.  For Medical Affairs, strategic planning skills can be extremely valuable (for example) when engaging with cross-functional stakeholders to create strategic brand plans, when creating thought leader engagement plans and generating insights.

Critical Thinking

According to the World Economic Forum’s most recent Future of Jobs Report, critical thinking is one of the top “in-demand” job skills for the coming years.  These skills help us interpret the world and process information, and they’re absolutely essential to strategic planning.  MSLs, for example, are already trained to read clinical data with a critical eye, so the foundations should be in place.  What’s needed is additional skills development so Medical Affairs personnel can deploy those skills into all aspects of their jobs, including strategic planning.


As mentioned above, Medical Affairs personnel must often communicate medical data, scientific updates and similar information to external stakeholders as well as colleagues within the company.  Medical Affairs team members are effectively “educators” and need to know how to educate both internal and external stakeholders while doing the following:

  1. Considering the needs, interests and responsibilities of their audience when constructing communications.
  2. Delivering communications in a way that is relevant and understandable to the audience and that avoids the traditional didactic data-driven approach.
  3. Applying principles of adult learning to use communication methods that are more engaging and thus more likely to get the desired results.

Parting Thoughts

Medical Affairs’ job isn’t getting any easier.  In fact, it’s getting tougher.  Training for MSLs and other Medical Affairs personnel must go beyond the self-directed, scientific data-driven methods we see today.  These professionals live in a world where strategic thinking, critical thinking and communication skills are just as important as the scientific side of the equation.  Their training needs to address these areas.

It’s important to note that building capabilities in the three areas mentioned above is challenging and requires specialized training.  Even companies that have L&D resources dedicated to Medical Affairs will need to leverage outsourced partners, as no training team can specialize in all of them.

Medical Affairs teams will likely need to use an “all of the above” approach to get medical training where it needs to be, looking to external partners, their colleagues in L&D and beyond for guidance and support.

Jodi Tainton, RN, works with health science learning strategy, program design and delivery for Salience Learning. Email Jodi at Kimberly Blanchard Portland, Ph.D., is client services lead  for Salience Learning. Email Kimberly at

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The Life Sciences Trainers & Educators Network ( is the only global 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization specializing in meeting the needs of life sciences learning professionals.

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