Who Is A Key Opinion Leader?

As social media (SM) becomes more widely used for personal and professional communication, it will have a significant impact on how doctors and patients communicate.  SM use will also change the ways that physicians and other health care providers communicate with the public.  A few weeks ago, the #HCSM twitter conversation focused around the idea of “key opinion leaders” (KOLs) from both patient- and a doctor-centered perspectives.

The patient-centered angle was up first, and the group was asked to describe what actions/qualities make a patient a KOL and what a patient KOL actually does.  I described the roles of patient KOLs included providing information, guidance, mentoring (if needed); increasing links and interactions; engaging in conversations vs. speechifying.  Meanwhile, I noted the responsibilities as being honest and open, willing to discuss and debate without getting aggressive or pushy, and willing to consider new ideas.

Other comments from the #hcsm chat:

  • @JackWestMD noted: “I think pt KOL status is based on 1) knowledge of their field/illness, and 2) connectivity/influence, both in real world & online” and that “the best patient KOLs are not only connected to others but genuinely committed to their community of ‘patients like me’.”
  • @sixuntilme wrote that “a good KOL is honest doesn’t pretend to ‘know it all’, and seeks to improve the health of themselves and their community.”
  • @crgonzalez described a KOL as “a patient advocate who spearheads a disease org or support group qualifies & one who has ID’d common problems /solutions to probs”
  • @rawarrior noted that patient KOLs are “Rational. Respectful. Reasonable. Responsible.”
  • @MeredithGould added that “A good KOL understands s/he is responsible to a community/audience & provides info & education accordingly.”

Patient KOLs are individuals who have authenticity within their community, who are advocates for other patients, who are reasonable and informed and who are able to make and strengthen connections among individuals.

The group next discussed physician KOLs.  The moderator asked if all physicians are KOLs, and there seemed to be a sense that this was not the case.  At the same time, the participants felt that any physician could be a KOL–at least within their own community.  I do not think that celebrity physicians or those with more public celebrity are necessarily KOLs, and I am not certain that the best known physicians in a community are necessarily the KOLs within their community.  Personally, I do not care if I am considered a KOL in any broad sense: industry might not think I’m a KOL, but so long as patients and peers do then that’s enough for me.

After discussing how to identify or define a KOL, the group discussion shifted to how SM affects KOL roles.  SM changes how we find/identify/interact with KOLs on both patient and physician levels.  In the past, to be a KOL from the physician side one needed to reach levels of preeminence among colleagues–maybe by writing a book, authoring a major research study, or accruing seniority and respect within your community.  Now,  SM levels the field: any physician can become a KOL within their area by reaching out and being a resource to the community.  I will need to prove my expertise and honesty in order for patients to trust me, but as long as I can prove myself than I can wield influence.  It will take time, but it can be done.

Similarly, patient KOLs do not have to be chosen from among “celebrity patients” such as actors or sports figures or other well-known public figures.  Any patient who is willing to fill the role of a KOL can engage with online SM communities that focus on a certain health issue.  Patients can work within those communities to answer questions and provide guidance, and may be able to reach ever-broader audiences as a result of being a positive resource to others.

Key opinion leaders do not have to be famous or high-profile individuals.  KOLs can be identified and can develop organically through honest, open, and constructive dialogue through SM.  KOLs that develop through these means will be more likely to continue acting as valuable resources within their communities–otherwise, their communities can use SM techniques to bring them back to earth.


3 Responses to Who Is A Key Opinion Leader?

  1. Dianne says:

    I think an important aspect of the issue, which wasn’t really addressed (probably because most people aren’t sensitized to the issue of how physician KOLs interact with pharma), is how e-patients who achieve some social media influence might interact with pharma and what their obligations are with respect to disclosure of financial compensation, conflicts of interests (or appearance thereof), etc. when discussing treatment options. I think the answer lies in transparency and having a clear understanding of the power of influence both to do good and to do harm.

  2. richmonddoc says:

    That is a great point, and one that was not well addressed in my post or during the HCSM discussion. Physicians will now need to disclose PhRMA and industry payments under the new Sunshine Act that goes into effect in the next few years, but there is no requirement for patient KOLs to do the same.

    Dianne–do you think that the patient community is capable of policing this issue themselves? If not, how could that be addressed?

  3. diannerees says:

    I think patients are very capable of addressing the issue, but that it’s not really on the radar.

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