GPs have a low understanding of the difference between medical science liaisons (MSLs) and pharmaceutical sales reps, according to a recent survey conducted by AusDoc.1 

The finding is unsurprising, given that MSLs generally focus on other specialists. But the increasing complexity of GP work means they will likely receive increasing MSL attention in the future. 

“GPs are prescribing way more complex medicine and treating more complex diseases than they were 10 or 20 years ago,” says Matthew Britland, President of Medical Affairs Professionals of Australasia (MAPA).  

“There’s a need for high-level technical and scientific discussion for them to understand how to use complex medicines properly.” 

Although MSLs can complement sales and marketing efforts, he emphasises that they are not in the business of promotion.  

“It’s essential to maintain the integrity of the role. However, if you are educating people properly, there will likely be benefits from the marketing team’s point of view.  

“Marketing, sales, medical and MSLs need to work together. They need symbiosis and shouldn’t be in silos. But there also need to be clear rules of engagement.”  

While only 20% of GPs in the AusDoc survey said they understood the difference between a sales rep and an MSL, the picture is different for specialists. Britland says academic data shows that specialists understand the difference between a conventional sales rep and an MSL, and they like that difference. “We need to keep that difference,” he says. 

Further evidence of the confusion among GPs was that 45% of survey respondents were unsure if they had seen an MSL in the past 12 months.2 

Optimistically, however, GPs who don’t routinely see sales reps may be prepared to see MSLs. Almost 60% of respondents expressed a desire to be in contact with an MSL if they had an opportunity.3 

“Where people see value, they will see people,” Britland says. So, if a team are having trouble getting access to a doctor, it may be the value you need to think about rather than ways of getting in. Often doctors will come to a medical team as much as the team goes to them.” 

Someone who has experience in bringing MSLs into general practice is Robin England, Head of Medical Excellence – ANZ at AstraZeneca. He’s not surprised by the low awareness about MSLs among GPs, as they have not been a focus for companies in the past.  

However, he agrees there is likely to be a growing trend towards upskilling GPs with scientific and medical information in line with the increasing complexity of the patients that GPs treat and the medications they prescribe.  

“It’s difficult for GPs to keep up with everything,” England says. “So, there is value in an MSL providing them with the latest research to keep them up to date about different disease states. “We’ve seen and heard from GPs that they value scientific discussions,” he says. 

However, most GPs are not candidates for face-to-face MSL engagement.  

“Broadly speaking, MSLs would be wise to focus on the more dynamic change-agent GPs who want to share best practice and really lead medicine,” Britland says. 

One way MSLs can spread their impact is through group educational sessions at GP practices where they can address several doctors and practice nurses in one session. That’s a real time-saver and a real benefit to the GP and the GP practice because they provide value to the whole practice. Another is to amplify their message through electronic communication, for example, by creating videos of their presentations or sending medical information packs to doctors with an invitation for the doctor to contact them if they have any questions. 

“The intention of medical affairs is to deliver quality use of medicine. So nurses, pharmacists and doctors are all important,” Britland says.  

“You need to speak to people along the continuity of care to ensure they have the best evidence. Beyond the pill, patient advocacy groups and government are also important.”  
Britland also wants company medical teams to support the role GPs play in patient education. 

“We need to make sure that patients have a good relationship with their medicine. A GP can facilitate that so that patients can get the best information. Just because a medicine is prescribed does not mean it is used properly.” 

The difference between MSLs and sales reps 

(Edited extract from Theron P, Britland M, Holder D et al; 2021, Therapeutic Innovation & Regulatory Science )

A key differentiator between medical science liaisons and sales reps, both customer-facing roles, is that MSLs are only permitted to interact with external experts in a non-promotional context. 

At times, these two functions have become blurred. MSLs should not be perceived as product advocates but rather as scientific experts in their therapeutic field. Indeed, MSLs are a valuable internal resource for the scientific training of sales and marketing teams, but appropriate steps need to be undertaken to ensure appropriate separation between commercial and Medical Affairs departments to avoid influence or the appearance of influence across the groups. 

How can you maximise your MSL investment and better inform GPs? 

Speak to the AusDoc engagement experts about: 

  • Distributing your MSL presentations and messaging to over 82% Australian GPs 
  • Our secure chat facility on AusDoc where GPs can reach out to MSLs 
  • Independent educational content  


1 Information sources for GPs in the new COVID world (Oct 2022). Q11 “Are you aware of the difference between a Pharmaceutical Sales Representative and a Medical Science Liaison (MSL)?” (n=198) 
2 Information sources for GPs in the new COVID world (Oct 2022). Q12 “Have you been in contact with a Medical Science Liaison over the last 12 months?” (n=197) 
3 Information sources for GPs in the new COVID world (Oct 2022). Q13 “If provided with the opportunity, would you have a desire to be in contact with a Medical Science Liaison?” (n=197)