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Organising effective meetings

Medical meetings represent a significant cost in both time and budget resource for a pharmaceutical company, but they can be a valuable element of the educational content of a companyís activities

Medical meetings represent a significant cost in both time and budget resource for a pharmaceutical company, but they can be a valuable element of the educational content of a companyís activities.

Projects involving a live event, unmoveable deadlines, several company departments, external experts, and an invited audience of medical professionals can be challenging and full of potential pitfalls. There is also an additional factor ñ the ABPI Code of Practice 2006 ñ that appears to have paralysed some pharmaceutical companies (and agencies), as if caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck!

Meetings and ABPI revised Code of Practice
The first step to abiding by the ëlawí is to understand it. Have you read the revised 2006 code? If not, then do so. If you have, then youíll know it positively encourages appropriate use of certain types of meeting:

  • Lunchtime a/v presentations at group practices
  • Hospital and postgraduate centre meetings
  • Launch meetings for new products
  • Management training courses
  • Clinical trial investigator meetings
  • Patient support group meetings
  • Satellite symposia

Large sponsored international meetings
What do you want to achieve? The effective use of respected opinion leaders and third-party endorsement provides direct benefits that cannot be obtained through other activities. Opinion leaders and product advocates can provide valuable information, practical advice and reassurance on the use of your product to medical professionals. But you must have a clear idea of what you want the event to achieve.

Do you want to:

1) Generate product awareness with a key group of prescribers prior to launch?
2) Position the use of your product for specific patient-types?
3) Reassure existing prescribers to expand their use of your product or use it earlier in a treatment algorithm?
4) Create a means to a different end, eg, generate published data or opinion that can be used on a much wider scale?
5)Enhance the profile and image of your company within your therapeutic area?

* You should ensure that you have agreed these objectives within the company before starting to consider the symposium/meeting content, potential chairpersons or speakers.

Define clear responsibilities
The resources available to successfully manage a symposium vary between companies and products:

1) Who will determine content and identify and select speakers?
2) Who will select a venue or liaise with independent congress organising committees?
3) Who will communicate with speakers to ensure they are adequately briefed, comfortable with what is required, provided with any relevant data or material and maintain this relationship?

* If appropriate resources are not available, consider external assistance

Selecting an agency/ ABPI Code of Practice
When selecting an agency to work with you, base your choice on what they can deliver and ensure that all parties are aware of their agreed responsibilities. If you need your agency to discuss scientific content with the speakers, confirm that they have appropriately skilled personnel working actively on the project. Your choice of agency is a reflection to other company personnel and your customers/prescribers of your own working standards.

You should also ensure that your agency is fully aware of the ABPI Code of Practice, but also has the experience and maturity to act responsibly and pragmatically, without supervision, with your external speakers.

What is your companyís ABPI approval process? At the outset, you should ensure that you are operating within your companyís agreed procedure for external meetings.

Should all the speakersí slides be internally approved? If a speaker insists that they do not want their slides ëinterfered withí, what will be your course of action? If a speaker is too busy to send their slides in advance of the meeting, will you stop them speaking?

You should avoid giving ambiguous direction to your agency if they are liaising with the speakers, particularly if they have inexperienced staff.

In reality, the best approach is to be pragmatic. Have you done as much as you can to ensure the speakers are aware of any product licence/indication restrictions, whilst respecting their independence and professional integrity?

Speakers to suit your audience
Once you have agreed what you want to achieve and communicate, consider which external experts you will be involving to speak or assist at the event. When you are choosing your faculty, consider:

1) What needs to be communicated
2) Who the audience will be
3) What level of speaker is appropriate for the audience
4) Which speakers you have used before
5) Which speakers you would like to be involved
6) What budget you have available (flights etc)

* Select speakers to match educational goals, audience and budget

The best meeting format

Your principle objective will be that the audience leaves the meeting thinking about their diagnosis and treatment processes in a different, more positive way, or that they change their prescribing habits as a direct result of attending the meeting, based on the latest data and peer opinion. So, how you communicate your messages is vital to the impact they will have on the audience, and the post-meeting effect that will remain with each attendee.

* Always match the meeting format to the communication objectives ñ be creative

Interaction with your speakers

Before confirming their participation, each speaker should be fully aware of their responsibilities and involvement in the meeting. This should cover the subject area and any specific product information that is relevant to the audience, as well as deadlines for abstracts, slide presentations and other pre-event obligations.

Discuss any content and data and ensure speakers are happy with this; provide important data and references. In general, hesitancy on the part of a speaker should be taken as a warning sign that this communication may be sceptically received by the audience, so reconsider, take advice on whether it should actually be included, or consider choosing a different speaker.

In addition to the primary speaking role, consider whether there will be any activities associated with the meeting that may require speaker collaboration. Co-operation in the production of post-event enduring outputs, such as highlights reports, slide CDs, DVDs or journal supplements should be agreed before the meeting and included in any honorarium fee. This avoids subsequent discussions that may delay circulation of post-event materials.

Finally, always ensure that a combined speaker preview is held, ideally the day before the event, allowing enough time for final preparations and changes to be completed.

Choose an appropriate venue
For company-sponsored conferences, your venue will be determined by these factors:

1) Location
2) Capacity
3) Availability
4) Budget
5) ABPI compliance.

In some cases, you may have little choice in where or when your meeting will be held. A satellite symposium during an international congress may be restricted to specific hours in prearranged rooms.

However, if you are involved with the congress at an early stage, you should consider factors, such as delegate attendance (if symposium is planned for before the opening of the congress), competing meetings, room size (a full room is always more encouraging than a half-empty one) and visibility (how easily will delegates find your room?), is the room close to main congregating areas, such as lunch stations or exhibition?

If these factors appear less than ideal, discuss your concerns with the congress organisers, or reconsider your attendance at future congresses.

* The meeting venue should work for you, not against you

Maximise post-event opportunities to increase ROI

Considering the time, budget and personal investment in the preparation of a successful meeting, the number of delegates that will attend will represent only a fraction of the total target audience that could benefit from the content of the meeting.

Linking back to your objectives for the meeting and expanding these to the broader product communication objectives, determine whether the meeting content could be disseminated to a broader audience via printed materials, or a website-based presentation.

Can the symposium be duplicated in other areas using original slides? For any materials, the sooner they can be distributed the greater the congress-associated value will be. The preparation of post-event materials may also have implications on speaker briefing and audio-visual requirements.

* Post-event activities can significantly increase the impact of the meeting

Evaluate results versus objectives

The evaluation of whether a meeting has been successful should logically follow from the setting of objectives. The nature of those objectives will determine what types of evaluation will be appropriate. If a market research resource is available within the company then involve them at an early stage to ensure that appropriate measures and evaluation methods are agreed.

* Basic measures, such as attendance numbers and simple CME evaluation questionnaires may provide a measure of general satisfaction, but do they give you all the information you may need?

Expect the unexpected

With any live event, the potential for the unexpected to happen is quite high. A speaker delayed in transit at a snow-bound airport, delayed data from a new study that did not progress on schedule, satellite links at the mercy of the weather or a projector that malfunctions during the event.

During the planning and preparation for an event, ëwhat if?í should be regularly asked. The meeting co-ordinator and their agencies should be preparing for the unexpected and putting contingency plans in place that will address each eventuality to ensure that the meeting achieves the pre-event objectives.

Medical meetings, ideally involving peer-to-peer discussion of practice-related issues, should continue to represent an important element of the communication activities of pharmaceutical companies. Their benefits to healthcare professionals will be directly related to the quality of the education they offer and the level of professionalism to which they are implemented.

Organising an event

Three basic principles should be applied to the organisation of any type of event: The meeting must have a clear, educational content

The educational content of the meeting, and any materials produced to accompany the meeting should be appropriate, factual, fair and capable of substantiation

Would the sponsoring company be willing for the meeting arrangements to be publicly known?

* Carefully planned evaluation can yield important data.

What to measure

Length of follow-up Regional differences Benchmark/ baseline Format Timing Internal communication.

The Authors
Peter Dommett is the managing director and Dr Kristin Pagano is the medical director at mXm Medical Communications. They can be contacted on +44 (0)1732 505282

2nd September 2008

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