As I See It

In defense of the “key opinion leader”

KOLs’ contributions to our industry go beyond shilling a product at a podium or booth.

I was intrigued by a recent letter to the editor (page 18) in which the writer expressed concern over the concept of “key opinion leaders,” or KOLs.

He wondered about those who referred to themselves as such, inferring that they were essentially folks who will say anything to promote products for the industry, as long as they get paid.


Hey, I get it. I’ll never forget a prominent academician at a company’s booth who promoted its newest antibiotic as the best on the market. Later the same day, I saw him at a competing company’s booth explaining why its antibiotic was the best. SMH. I’ve also seen guys (no gals just yet) swear that every product Company A makes in every category is the best. And then a year later swear the same truth — but now for Company B.

I think those are exceptions, not the rule. Most of the folks referred to as KOLs whom I know are extraordinarily smart, super hard-working and amazingly creative. So I reached out to a few dozen and asked their thoughts on the subject, which are summarized as follows.


The term KOL was primarily coined by industry, lumping together innovators, researchers, clinicians, consultants and academics with unique insights.

Any doctor who bestows the title KOL on himself is a tad bit full of himself. As one doctor put it, KOL is not given to you as a title — it is instead earned, much like a reputation. You don’t get labeled a KOL without experience, which often implies you’ve previously done it wrong but finally figured out how to get it right!

Further, KOLs are not just podium speakers; they also tend to be innovating either independently or in conjunction with industry, doing ground-breaking research, testing and giving feedback on new products and so on. Once they gained this experience and knowledge, they are committed to educating others either as live speakers or in print and video.

I remember the first time someone in industry referred to me as a KOL. I didn’t even know what it stood for but, once enlightened, was pretty sure he had the wrong guy. However, if I really like a product, device or drug, I do want the rest of you to know about it and am more than happy to share my experiences. Yes, I get compensated to travel and speak, but I could make more money staying home and seeing patients. Like the others, I enjoy learning, and I enjoy sharing that knowledge with others.


Are there bad KOLs? Sure, just as there is bad in almost all categories of life.

But, I think Eric Donnenfeld put it best: “Virtually every major advance in ophthalmology — phacoemulsification, foldable IOLs, lasers (Nd:YAG, excimer and femtosecond) and most pharmaceutical agents — has been developed, refined and brought to market through close relationships between industry and KOLs. This symbiosis should be celebrated, embraced and fostered for the sake of its ultimate beneficiaries: our patients.” OM