Speak the truth: There are countless ways that the myth of physician superiority has been indoctrinated within the aesthetic industry. I’ve personally benefited from it. But it’s not right. And it’s time that we usher in an era of diversity and inclusivity. Nothing will change unless those of us who actually care about the future of the aesthetic industry verbalize our concerns and manifest a transformation!
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Will Kirby.
Blazing a bright trail into the field of aesthetics, Dr. Will Kirby and LaserAway represent a new generation of disrupters in a historically opaque discipline. By ushering in transparency, they plan to transform their field from one of secrecy into an industry of inclusion, diversity, and honesty.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I am board certified dermatologist by trade and serve as the Chief Medical Officer of LaserAway, the nation’s leader in aesthetic dermatology. We have more than 60 clinics with a presence in nine of the ten biggest cities in the United States. One of my professional duties is to research new treatments coming down the pike and to decide if they might be a good fit for our millennial patient population. As a physician scientist, I’m of course data driven and I embarked on an effort to analyze the aesthetic industry so that I would have vantage of these new emerging technologies and indications. When I recognized that there was no true source of unbiased information available and that the majority of the messaging in aesthetics was coming from a small group of financially incentivized doctors classified by the unqualified term “key opinion leader”, I knew that the industry was ripe for disruption.
Can you tell our readers what it is that you are disrupting?
Let’s take a look at the history of the field of aesthetics. See, the aesthetic industry is a relatively new subspeciality of dermatology and since its inception it has been led by a small group of self-appointed individuals who refer to themselves as “key opinion leaders” (also known as “KOLs”). Pause for a brief second and drill in on that: It is my contention that the term “key opinion leader” is, at the very least, mildly ostentatious. Afterall, how did they become a “KOL”? What key information do they possess? What qualifies their opinions? Whom are they actually leading? These are clearly rhetorical questions because, despite my best efforts, no one has been able to answer them. Traditional “KOLs” in this scenario are clearly biased towards the products they are being financially compensated to endorse. Part of the issue here is the semantics: What we are really talking about instead is an “official spokesperson” role. They are, unequivocally, serving in a paid spokesperson capacity — that’s not open for debate. So, why not just call the endorsing physician an “official spokesperson” instead of a “key opinion leader”? It is my contention that the aesthetic industry will be better served by cleaning up the misleading definitions and spelling out, once and for all, exactly what a “key opinion leader” is.
Please tell us how you are causing a disruption.
I’m simply asking a question: “What constitutes a ‘key opinion leader’?” This inquiry is important because “KOLs”, were once omnipotent and unquestioned but, in healthcare, that is extremely dangerous as it has the potential to lead to bias and could compromise patient outcomes, efficacy, and safety. Asking the aesthetic industry to clearly define the meaning of a “KOL” will force the entire to concept to be undergo analysis and justifiable scrutiny. This concept is wildly disruptive because it changes the entire historical foundation of the aesthetic industry.
Can you please tell us about the actual disruption occurring?
We know that aesthetic industry disruption is occurring because we are starting to see improvements in inclusion. It’s so refreshing to witness not just allopathic physicians but also osteopathic physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and registered nurses finally getting a seat at the table. The patients seeking aesthetic treatments are diverse, the health care practitioners implementing the aesthetic treatments are diverse, and I’m of the opinion that it’s time that the aesthetic dermatology journals, conferences, industry advertisements, podcast and webinar hosts, advisory board members, and podium speakers also reflect this level of diversity. Aesthetic pharmaceutical and device companies take notice: Paying traditional “key opinion leaders” to endorse your product or service no longer translates into guaranteed success. In fact, it might not even result in a neutral as hiring traditional “KOLs” is already starting to be shown to be deleterious for some aesthetic companies.
We all need a little help along the journey. Whose opinion do you admire?
Many seek mentors within their respective field of expertise because of convenience and/or self-dealing and I think that’s what has led to the nepotism we see with the traditional “KOLs” in aesthetics. They’ve long championed their cronies which occasionally results in a homogenized echo chamber. And this begs other questions: Are these “KOLs” acting in the best interest of those they purport to educate? Or are they acting in their own best interests? So, with no true transparency, I think it’s reasonable to purposely shun the opinion of traditional aesthetic “KOLS”. Afterall, I’m sure that we can all agree that it’s hard to trust a podium speaker if we don’t know who has access to their wallet.
Now, to more accurately answer your question, I admire the opinion of the aesthetic patient. They vote with their wallets. If you want to know which aesthetic injectables and aesthetic devices are successful, don’t ask a “KOL” who is being financially compensated to discuss these products in theory, ask the patients! Do a consumer perception study! Ask the busy aesthetic groups which treatments patients are purchasing! It’s not difficult to obtain useful data in aesthetics yet pharmaceutical companies are reticent to do it. All that said, I’d being doing a disservice if I didn’t acknowledge that there are some reputable groups doing good work in the aesthetic space and doing their best to obtain accurate data. Traditional aesthetic powerhouses like Allergan Aesthetics and Cynosure have been great partners on this journey! My group has been successful because we admire honesty, integrity, and real relationships.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’?
Not all disruptions stand the test of time of course. And it’s also a misconception that a disruption has to be abrupt. Disruption is taking place all around us all the time and I’d describe the disruption we are witnessing in the field of aesthetic medicine as more of a natural progression or an evolution, if you will. The concept of the traditional “KOLs” isn’t just outdated, it’s decades out of date. And I don’t know why our industry has tolerated it this long. So, to address your point, is all disruption necessarily good? No. But some change is inevitable. And I for one am inspired by the changes taking place before our eyes.
Can you share three of the best pieces of advice you’ve gotten along your journey.
1) Be desireless. This doesn’t by any of the stretch of the imagine mean to be undesirable mind you. It just means to go into any unfamiliar situation with no agenda. Have no desire. Be a listener. I now always try to read the room!
2) Question authority. Why are we so quick to believe the information spewing from the ivory towers? What’s the harm in questioning the status quo of the aesthetic industry?
3) Speak the truth: There are countless ways that the myth of physician superiority has been indoctrinated within the aesthetic industry. I’ve personally benefited from it. But it’s not right. And it’s time that we usher in an era of diversity and inclusivity. Nothing will change unless those of us who actually care about the future of the aesthetic industry verbalize our concerns and manifest a transformation!
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Our disruption is just getting started in fact. Understand that the in-person aesthetic conferences have screeched to halt and, anecdotally, the virtual conferences are failing because (paid) attendance is dropping (they’ll argue that attendance is up but this is unsubstantiated and it likely doesn’t reflect actual paid attendance). We know that the traditional “KOLs” have historically led the aesthetic conferences and have long taken credit for their success. This begs a question: Since the traditional “KOLs” are featured in both the popular in-person conferences as well as the poorly attended virtual conferences, is the presence of the traditional “KOL” really the driver? I’d politely argue that the exciting locations, the travel, the lavish dinners, and the social aspects, not the presence of the traditional “KOLs” is what made the in-person conferences popular. And now knowing that traditional “KOLs” might actually not contribute to aesthetic conference attendance, will conference organizers ever again pay traditional “KOLs” to headline them in the future? Will reputable aesthetic companies want to continue to pay traditional “KOLs” to endorse their products at in-person and virtual conferences? With fewer place to hawk their wares, and fewer wares to hawk, traditional “KOLs” might find themselves marginalized. But the appetite for aesthetic training and education won’t be abated. Health care providers wishing to learn new skills and information will seek out new, trusted sources for their educational endeavors.
Does social media have a role in your disruption?
Technology is intended to make our lives easier and social media is just one of the technical tools we all should use to communicate efficiently. As such, yes, social media absolutely plays a huge role in the disruption taking place in aesthetic dermatology. Aesthetic conferences and companies would be wise to start quantifying true aesthetic influence with data analytics from social media accounts. Again, if a traditional “KOLs” actually has influence then then their benefactors would be well served by quantifying that influence. And if they can’t quantify the influence of their championed “KOL”? Well, maybe that person isn’t actually all that influential. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that social media is also extremely dangerous because it can easily spread misinformation. Regardless of the path you take to communicate whether it be podium, journal, podcast, webinar, social medical channel, or otherwise, we can agree that all roads lead to the need for data analytics so that true influence can be, once and for all, quantified.
You are clearly passionate about disrupting the aesthetic industry. What are the biggest myths that have perpetuated negative outcomes in your field?
1) Aesthetic pharmaceutical companies and device manufacturers as well as aesthetic conferences and journals should recognize that the concept of allopathic physician superiority is an unsubstantiated myth. The Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and respected, honest, ethical, unbiased “KOLs” — all pure myths. The perpetuation of this fear-based fallacy results in intellectual inbreeding. They even classify health care providers with insulting terms like “core” (dermatologists and plastic surgeons) and “non-core” (everyone else) without ever recognizing that the vast majority of aesthetic treatments in the world are implemented by non-physician clinicians. The long-maintained “KOL” heritage of the aesthetic industry is quickly subsiding as companies move away from indoctrinated ideologies and gravitate toward the healthy inclusion and diversity offered by allied health care providers with varying academic degrees and backgrounds.
2) Another myth is that publications in aesthetic journals benefit the industry. Many of these articles only benefit the traditional “KOL” author and his or her cohorts because it provides them a forum at a conference. The amount of superfluous, needless, insignificant articles published and presented at conferences is truly obscene. And, again, why isn’t this quantified? One could argue that the traditional “KOLs” do not want publication influence quantized because then the industry will see how overblown and exaggerated journal article influence actually is I suspect that the readership of these articles is, relatively speaking, unbelievably small! Once aesthetic pharmaceutical companies and device manufactures acknowledge that they don’t need to compensate the same wearisome “KOLs” speaking at conferences about their inconsequential, poorly read publications to drive sales for them, well, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we witness a deffervescence of publishing interest among “KOLs”.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I really respond well to the Winston Churchill quote, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” And I think, for me anyway, this concept really reflects what I’m experiencing as a disruptor. Traditional “KOLS” with limited actual influence who profit from the current confusion in aesthetic endorsements obviously won’t take kindly to the questions I’m asking and the agenda I’m pushing. But I believe that it’s truly in the best interest of the entire aesthetic industry to take a good, hard look at how they define “key opinion leadership”.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement I want to inspire is one where health care providers will no longer blindly accept the unqualified opinions of a select few compromised individuals with possible biased agendas and will instead become their own information advocates. I want to inspire aesthetic clinicians to hold the companies and organizations and publications in our field accountable for the individuals they financially compensate. I want aesthetic companies and conferences to feel empowered when they inform the traditional “KOLs” that they can no longer shake the money tree. Please let me reassure anyone reading this that my team and I are doing everything we can to make sure honesty and ethics play significant roles in the aesthetic industry moving forward. Complete transparency and unbridled integrity ultimately benefits every single individual and company involved in the aesthetic space but, more importantly, truth in advertising aids the single most important person in the aesthetic industry: The patient seeking aesthetic services.
What are five tangible steps that the aesthetic pharmaceutical companies should immediately take to benefit from the disruption and to shake up the industry in a positive way?
1) Acknowledge the Turning Tide: The first step in this aesthetic disruption process is the recognition that the traditional “key opinion leader model” is a flawed concept. It is ill defined, poorly quantified and infused with inherent bias. It perpetuates a hazardous model: Propagandized anecdotal medicine.
2) Fresh Slate: Remove all “KOLs” currently on your payroll. Start afresh with a blank piece of paper. Make a list of clinicians (MDs, DOs, NPs, PAs, RNs) that more accurately represent the aesthetic patient population. Explore processes that would allow you to engage those individuals in deeper and more meaningful ways.
3) Track: Immediately determine what data points constitute true influence in aesthetics and track those meticulously. Geographic footprint? Social media followers? Platforms used to educate patients? Perception amongst peers? Unbiased research? Training of others? Unfunded publications? Etc?
4) Analyze: Evaluate aesthetic publication readership, aesthetic conference attendance, podcast audiences, and webinar viewership. Are these platforms meaningful? Are they an efficient means by which to engage clinicians? Do the financial costs of sponsorship commensurate with the actual engagement?
5) Rename: Immediately abandon the phrase “key opinion leader” and ‘KOL”. Cancel the use of the word “luminary”. Halt the use of “core” and “non-core”. Incorporate the term “aesthetic influencer” into the aesthetic lexicon. Immediately integrate the phrase “official spokesperson” for physicians being compensated by pharmaceutical companies.
What closing comments do you have for us?
It is my strong opinion that rectitude, inclusion, and diversity will reign supreme moving forward in the field of aesthetics and that the future aesthetic influencers will better represent the staff implementing the treatments and the patients seeking the treatments. As scientists we have an obligation to shun the sorcery that is currently being sold to us as scientific data. As such, I’m of the belief that true aesthetic leadership and influence will not come from current indoctrinated traditional “key opinion leaders” and the industry insiders who mysteriously appointed them but will instead be quantified by real analytics. I’m calling on every person and company in aesthetics to reclassify all current “key opinion leaders” and “KOLs” as what they really are, paid spokespeople. And I’m asking that we come to an agreement on the data points that should be utilized to accurately quantify aesthetic industry influence moving forward.
How can our readers follow you online?
Please follow the LaserAway Instagram account at @laserAway and my Instagram account at @DrWillKirby1 where we will be releasing captivating, honest, accurate aesthetic information on a daily basis!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you for spreading the word about the disruption taking place in the aesthetic industry!