Communication Essentials for Field Medical
Feature Story – By Amy Glass
If we are going to train them more, what should we train on?
A leader of a medical affairs leadership team recently said, “I wish our people realized how important communication skills are to the success of medical liaisons. I want them to realize that communication skills are as essential as the science in their scientific exchanges and conversations with customers.”
This leader’s concern over his team’s view of communication skills is based upon the knowledge that field medical’s importance and visibility are growing and that Medical Affairs (MA) in the life sciences industry is expanding. Many experts believe it is fast emerging as the most essential role in the pharmaceutical industry.
The Changing Role of MA
In the past, MA was defined primarily by information support and management of routine regulatory requirements. They were viewed as a behind-the-scenes part of an organization. Today, Medical Affairs is command central, currently encompassing strategy, safety, communication, post-launch trials, field teams and more.
So, if we are going to train them more, what should we train on?
Active listening, insightful questioning and clear communication concepts are a great starting point for up-leveling skills. These are skills important to both work and life. For medical liaisons, these skills are crucial for understanding health care professionals’ perspectives, gathering insights and educating.
Here are some practical tips for enhancing these skills.
- Active listening is an important skill that we all can improve. We can begin by asking ourselves if we are listening or simply waiting to speak? It’s important to know how well we listen, because there are many benefits to true, active listening – it honors and acknowledges the speaker, allows us to gather valuable information and helps to gain trust. Even though listening seems like something we do naturally, it isn’t at all a natural state. We need to use active listening techniques to get the most out of our interactions with others.
- Illustration questions encourage the speaker to paint a picture or fill in the blanks. These questions ask someone to share or describe his or her perspective. For example, once patients start treatment, how are they followed? What is their understanding of prevalence, risk factors and screening?
- Clarification questions are similar to illustration questions, except we’re asking for the healthcare provider’s definition or understanding of a word or idea. For instance, what do you mean specifically when you say you are concerned about the safety of X medicine? What criteria did you use to assess the treatment outcomes?
- Consequence questions focus on the cost of not doing what is recommended or on the benefit of doing what is recommended. A consequence question builds on a discussion that has already established the need for change. Here we are asking about effects, results and impacts. Asking “what does X cause or create?” helps the speaker to express the magnitude of his or her issue. For example, how would that impact the way you treat patients who have heart failure? What would it mean if you could prevent X side effect in your patients?
- Elevating questions focus or refocus on the bigger picture at hand. Elevating questions are used to zoom out from the specific issue and see the overall context or concern. For instance, why does your system feel it is necessary to manage the class by only having two agents on formulary? Although this one patient did not qualify for the study, are there bigger issues with the inclusion/exclusion criteria that need addressing?
Beyond these types of questions, here are two additional key tactics:
- Phrase questions using, “Would you be willing…” instead of “Can you…” For example, “Would you be willing to share with me your reasons for choosing X therapy?” This subtle use of the word willing causes the respondent to acquiesce. Studies show that humans may very well not comply when asked a question, but when asked if they are “willing,” they comply almost every time. We are, it seems, unwilling to be seen as unwilling.
- Ask what instead of why. Although this may seem like just semantics, it can have a definite effect on how respondents interpret the question. Why is felt as much more accusatory and can put people on the defensive. The word carries with it negative connotations for many people. What doesn’t have that same effect. Simply substituting the word “what” for the word “why” when asking a question can solve this potential issue of negative interpretation.
Clearly communicating concepts is especially important when we are having difficult conversations. The framework following will improve our communication in any situation. There are four steps in this effective communication model:
- Listen to understand the situation and any possible source of unmet expectations. Listening also gives the speaker a sense of being “heard.” It gives them a chance to vent or just explain. Especially in difficult situations, listening is about more than gathering information; it is about managing emotions.
- Paraphrase to acknowledge what was heard. This demonstrates our understanding of the issue or gives the speaker an opportunity to clarify.
- Identify the core issue to get to the bottom of the problem. If emotions are involved, this is an important next step. What are they really upset about? Where did the “disconnect” happen?
- Respond once the core issue is known. Address that issue directly. Avoid confrontational language. Using “and” enables you to pose alternative understandings or perspectives for them to consider.
As medical affairs grows in importance and the spotlight continues to move to field medical, these communication essentials will enable medical liaisons to accelerate performance and to add exponential value for all stakeholders.
Amy Glass is owner & CEO of BRODY Professional Development. Email Amy at