Progression – it’s something which all practitioners working in aesthetics are striving towards. Whether that’s through opening your own clinic, completing further training or educating others, all healthcare professionals are constantly working towards progressing their careers and abilities to help patients look and feel the best version of themselves.
For some, becoming a key opinion leader (KOL) might be an aspiration for the future, wanting to help progress, teach and inspire a new generation of aesthetic practitioners, as well as further developing your own skillset. A definition of a KOL is ‘a trusted, well-respected influencer with proven experience and expertise in a particular field.’1-3 In the aesthetic medicine landscape, the role of KOLs usually involves representing a company through activities like speaking at conferences or events, participating in clinical trials, publishing research in medical journals, being a board member within an organisation, training others, or even treating or diagnosing a high number of patients in a specialty area.1-3 They can also play a role in assisting pharmaceutical, medical device and similar companies in making informed decisions across the product lifecycle, such as clinical research, regulatory compliance and drug development.4
With aesthetic medicine being a fast-paced, progressive industry, it can be difficult to know where to start or what company to represent when becoming a KOL. It is another challenge to know how to develop this to become internationally acclaimed.
During ACE 2023 in March, aesthetic practitioners and established global KOLs Miss Sherina Balaratnam, Dr Raul Cetto, Dr Tapan Patel and Dr Lee Walker took to the stage to discuss their personal experiences in becoming global KOLs, as well as offering their advice for practitioners looking to take a similar step in their careers. These practitioners represent a range of companies internationally, including Allergan Aesthetics, BTL Aesthetics, Cutera, iS Clinical and Teoxane, as well as many others throughout their careers.
Where do you begin? Firstly, it is important to take time to evaluate yourself and your practice. Before you embark on this journey, you should consider: where does your deepest knowledge and skillset lie? What are you passionate about? Miss Balaratnam notes that this first stage is pivotal to determine if you are ready to represent a brand. “When I began working in aesthetics, my purpose was to deliver excellent patient results that could be seen and celebrated. I would perform the treatments and really focus on outstanding outcomes. This was something that really excited me.” Miss Balaratnam says that once you are experienced in utilising the technology with great demonstratable results, a good next step is to build relationships with companies.
She reflects, “I went to my supplier colleagues and asked for feedback on my achieved results and ways in which I could drive my patient results further. This is how I became better connected with companies in the industry and developed strong interpersonal relationships which is a crucial first step in the journey to becoming a KOL for a company.”
Miss Balaratnam adds that building relationships with companies is vital as they can train, educate and help you understand your product portfolio, as well as further advance your results for the patient. Miss Balaratnam says, “With increased teaching and training from the Allergan Medical Institute for example, I became an expert in understanding and using their product portfolio which enabled me to be in a good position to train others. I began representing the company through smaller, intimate in-clinic events, progressing to larger conferences such as ACE and CCR. Over time, this slowly grew to representing the brand internationally.”
Dr Walker notes that KOLs, particularly those with the ambition to develop their careers internationally, should develop and learn new skills, such as how to teach. “My drive was teaching, but what I found frustrating in the beginning was not knowing how to do this effectively!” he reflects. To become more confident and desirable to potential companies, Dr Walker undertook a teaching qualification. He notes, “I attended the Royal College in Glasgow to do some clinical teaching, and then Dr Cetto and I went to the University of South Wales to complete post-graduate qualifications in medical education, teaching ourselves to be teachers. I recommend other KOLs and aspiring KOLs to consider undertaking this in their own careers.”
Dr Patel agrees that teaching skills are a necessity, and practitioners can start by teaching or being a mentor for a colleague in their own clinics. He adds, “Bring in your nurse, clinic manager, therapist and practise teaching them something like the anatomy, and you will soon realise if you enjoy it or not. If you do enjoy it, then being a KOL could be a good career path for you and there are so many directions you can take. You might be thinking, ‘Hang on, all these opportunities are so saturated, I don’t have a chance!’ I think the opposite. If you want to get involved in education, then becoming a KOL is a very nice and secure future.”
Miss Balaratnam highlights that learning never stops when you become a KOL. She often asks companies to train and teach her so she is constantly updated, enabling her to be an expert in the latest sciences, technology or technique. “When I speak to the senior leadership teams, I learn from them about how they like to take the treatment further. I always say, ‘Don’t sell to me and then leave me.’ Instead, train me, educate me and help me grow because when ‘I’ get better, my patients will get better results. This also allows me to translate my knowledge and research onto other aspiring practitioners,” she says.
When becoming a KOL, practitioners usually decide to represent a company and become the ‘face’ of a particular brand, treatment or product. Miss Balaratnam advises to carefully consider the brands you choose to associate yourself with. “If I get invited to become a KOL just by purchasing a device, for example, I say ‘no’. I don’t believe this lends any credibility to either party to place any practitioner on stage to present on a new technology if they haven’t properly used it, tested it, seen their own results or covered the evidence-based research and clinical trials,” she shares.
Dr Patel agrees that it is important to choose the companies you represent wisely and remain respectful of other brands. He also believes it’s important to note that KOLs are free to use whichever products they choose in their private practice and teaching. He comments, “I’ve used a lot of different brands in the past. Using different products allows us as practitioners to have a more rounded approach to treating patients, and ensures we are utilising the best products to achieve optimal results and remain credible to our peers.”
Despite the new opportunities that becoming a KOL brings to your profile and business, it can be difficult to find a balance. Running a clinic, treating patients, speaking at conferences and conducting research as well as having a personal life are some of the challenges which may be faced. Dr Cetto advises deciding on how much time you want to dedicate to KOL duties. “There is a lot to manage, and it can take up a lot of your time. Therefore, you need to find a balance early on and decide how much time you want to dedicate. Companies can offer you an abundance of opportunities which you can agree to, however, if you take on too much, you’ll suddenly find yourself travelling for months, and not spent any time in your clinic or with your family,” he says.
For Dr Patel, travelling internationally may seem glamorous but it can come with its downfalls, especially if you agree to all opportunities. Dr Patel reflects, “The diary was empty during the pandemic, so I began saying yes to everything as the world began to open back up. However, this quickly caught up with me and I realised I was burning out. Before I knew it, I had travelled to 38 cities and done 76 flights as well as running my clinic and I wasn’t really enjoying it.” Dr Patel notes that as well as numerous flights, there is a lot of prep work that needs to be completed beforehand, such as calls, briefings and creating presentations, which can take time.
Dr Walker agrees, noting that discovering what you are passionate about should be your main driving force. He adds, “Being a KOL is extremely rewarding, but comes with its own challenges and obstacles which you need to be prepared for. If you are dedicated and driven though, it will work! A lot of people believe that you have this wonderful lifestyle but it’s far from it. You usually work with jet lag, with people you’ve never met, have to deal with language barriers and translators, and sometimes, countries don’t have the same standards of medical care, which are all difficult to deal with.”
Looking to the future
So, where is the future of KOLs heading? It can take years to develop a KOL status, let alone global success, taking time, effort and ongoing commitment. Although most people interpret being a KOL as representing a company, it doesn’t have to be. Practitioners can speak at events/share their knowledge and research with the industry independently. In fact, this might be a suitable place to start to get your name out there.
If you are still unsure about becoming a KOL, Miss Balaratnam concludes that mentorship is key in the industry and being able to ask fellow colleagues for their advice and recommendations is fundamental. She reflects, “10 years ago, I wouldn’t have known who to turn to or have the confidence to ask questions to peers. However, by attending conferences, training days, workshops or events, you are able to ask others about how they became a KOL, how they improved their portfolio and what being a KOL involves. This way, you receive real advice from colleagues who have been through their own obstacles and are more than willing to help develop future practitioners in aesthetics.”
Dr Tapan Patel’s five top tips for international success as a KOL…
1. Find your passion – is there a particular field of aesthetic medicine which you love or enjoy researching and learning about? Delve in and become an expert in this area with excellent demonstrable results, independent research and publications.
2. Contact companies – who are you interested in working with? Request more in-depth training or help with research for example. Let them know you are interested in being their KOL.
3. Remain authentic and credible – ensure you have a genuine interest, passion and experience in a particular company’s treatments and products.
4. Become a confident leader – get training and experience in educating others and speaking to an audience, from intimate groups to large crowds.
5. Find a balance – once you become a KOL, know that international travel means a busy diary. You might need to start juggling some plates; it is important to still have a work/life balance to avoid burnout!
1. Definitive Healthcare, ‘Key Opinion Leader (KOL)’,
2. Meffert JJ, ‘Key opinion leaders: where they come from and how that affects the drugs you prescribe’, Dermatol Ther, 2009.
3. Thompson D, ‘Key Opinion Leaders in the Pharmaceutical, Medical and Healthcare spheres’, The Science Times, 2021, <https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/34171/20211026/key-opinion-leaders-in-the-pharmaceutical-medical-and-healthcare-spheres.htm>
4. Extend Med, ‘KOL Management in Pharma: A Complete Guide’, 2022, <https://www.extendmed.com/news-and-resources/kol-management#:~:text=Key%20opinion%20leaders%2C%20or%20KOLs,in%20managing%20a%20disease%20state.>