Don’t Use Prescription Data To Identify Key Opinion Leaders: 5 Reasons

Over the years we have heard a number of concerns regarding KOLs from company employees:

“I am worried that if he is asked how to use it, what will he say”? 

“She is not loyal to us”. 

“I don’t know why he is up there [speaking], he never prescribes our product”. 

These are the concerns of anxious sales representatives, marketing professionals and even medical affairs directors when referring to certain speakers that I have worked with earlier in my career in medical communications. That put quite a damper on what were essentially excellent scientifically strong and intellectually stimulation educational presentations. In any case, the point is that when it came to KOLs, there appeared to be a greater interest in brand loyalty than in diverse experience, credibility and linkages to other individuals and groups. Such loyalty was measured in terms of prescriptions.

Since then for many in our industry, thankfully the definition of a KOL has gone beyond someone with allegiance to a particular product. Yet it is not uncommon to run into our colleagues who ask why we can’t just use prescribing data to identify KOLs, particularly beyond the national level. The rationale is that this will help to uncover the true clinicians – those who can speak from their vast patient-facing experience. While there is some validity to this, there are even more reasons why the process for KOL identification should not include prescription data, period. We have outlined the top five reasons for avoiding prescribing data in your KOL mapping efforts.

     1. Is not a measure of expertise

Prescription data is a measure of just that, prescriptions. That said, it only tells us the specific products that a clinician uses for their patient and the volume. It does not signify if the individual has expertise in a given area or even if they treat a lot of patients (see #4). To that point, we do hear that especially at the regional/local levels, it is critical that the KOL speaks from their experience.  There are more effective – and less expensive – means to do this.

     2. It has not been a great indicator of a KOL

In our 15+ years of experience in KOL mapping, we have found that prescription volume has not been an accurate marker of an ideal KOL. In fact, there is an inverse relationship between these two once you are at the national level.  Alternatively, KOLs at any level are found to have multi-faceted profiles with demonstrated abilities to take their expertise outside of their own practices and link with their communities.

 3. Can lead to malalignment with the organizations objectives 

By labeling a KOL based off one set of data (prescription data) can lead to a host of problems.  Medical Affairs might be looking for KOLs to shed light on a disease state at an advisory board but soon realize their knowledge is limited. Marketing is looking for a KOL that can communicate issues to a wider audience but realize they have no public speaking or writing experience. This becomes even more apparent when a company use one set of KOLs for a variety of disparate tasks. We have always advocating using a unique profile we’ve develop to ensure the right match within an organization.

     4. May not represent who you think it does 

It is well established that a good deal of the care delivered is no longer exclusively through physicians. With over 280,000 in the US alone, the role of nurse practitioners (NPs) has been expanding significantly and they have been functioning at a much higher capacity than ever before.  This includes varying levels of prescriptive privileges in all 50 states and the District of Columbia with NPs writing an average of 23 prescriptions a day per the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.  What is not always realized is that a fair share of these treatments is not captured under the NP themselves, but rather a physician with whom they work with.

Consequently, while a particular physician may show up as having an incredibly large prescription volume for a particular product or class of therapy, the reality is that they have five NPs, all of whom are using the physician’s number for their own prescriptions. They are then captured under the physician and not the NP. On the flip side, when trying to use this to map NP KOLs, this data will likely misrepresent them as low-volume clinicians who do not see many patients.

The bottom line is that prescription data may not even be an accurate picture of an individual’s clinical experience. There are better sources.

     5. May open company up to media or government scrutiny. 

For this very reason, prescription data should be considered a proverbial third rail in KOL identification. Due to activities years ago by some players that were less than savory, our industry is still shaking off a reputation that suggests that anyone tied to it is biased. Most recently, reports by CNN and other news outlets have tied money paid to clinicians for speaking and consulting, to their prescription patterns. While these reports tend to inspect the prescriptions following such payments, it is just as likely to trigger a red flag if it is found that a KOL who is also an established high prescriber is receiving significant honoraria for a number of activities.

Therefore, while the intent may not be to only collaborate with KOLs who are product loyalists, use of prescription data to identify them may nonetheless send the wrong message and impair the credibility. It can also open the company up to some unwanted attention.

Overall, the definition of a KOL has evolved, with the ideal being one who is a trustworthy and capable expert who can convey their knowledge to others in order to improve patient care. So too have the methods for identifying them. With the multi-faceted approach which combines multiple and varied sources, such as what Snowfish provides, credible KOLs can be effectively mapped and engaged for all types of innovative programs. Whereas prescription data has value for many functions such as sales and marketing, for the reasons stated, it should be omitted from KOL mapping efforts.

Snowfish has pioneered this unique approach of building custom stakeholder landscapes including KOL identification and mapping, designed to meet the needs of the particular product. To learn more, please feel free to contact us at

Melissa Hammond, GNP is Managing Director at Snowfish a strategic consulting firm that has almost two decades working exclusively with the pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device industries. Please go to or call +703-759-6100 to learn more about our services.


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