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Facing up to virtual reality

As COVID-19 continues to have a cataclysmic impact on face-to-face events, 70% of event planners have moved some of their face-to-face meetings to virtual platforms and many believe that we’ll never go back

At the start of February 2020, I wrote an oped about the need for pharma to rethink its approach to congresses and exploit disruptive innovation to transform the delegate experience.

To my great relief, it wasn’t published. Just a few weeks later, the headline remains the same, but the drivers – and indeed the solutions – are very different. We all know the story: COVID-19 has had a cataclysmic impact on face-to-face events, with some events professionals fearing their industry has become obsolete overnight. A recent survey by PCMA showed that 87% of event planners have been forced to cancel events. However, 70% have moved some of their face-to-face meetings to virtual platforms and many believe that we’ll never go back.

The concept of the virtual conference is nothing new for pharma. Nevertheless, with congresses an important component of CME, the abrupt (and wholesale) move to the virtual model has brought significant challenges to the industry, societies and delegates alike. A traditional model crying out for disruption just a few months ago is now being disrupted on an unprecedented scale. And entire communities – schooled in convention and resistant to change – are being forced to face up to a virtual reality. But guess what? The world hasn’t ended.

A new landscape

Teresa Peña, PhD, Executive Principal, Medical Communications, ICON plc says the COVID-19 crisis has redrawn the landscape of medical congress. “The pandemic has challenged the traditional onsite congress engagement experience and forced pharma and the scientific community to rethink the brick-and-mortar congress halls; miles of paper poster presentations; and the usual congress scene with scientists, healthcare and pharma professionals elbowing their way through a sea of congress delegates. Although virtual content is not new to pharma, nor to scientific congresses, the evolving COVID-19 situation is helping to level the playing field with full virtual attendance and presentations.”

The signs, it seems, are encouraging, with burgeoning attendances confirming HCPs’ growing appetite for digital engagement. It’s no surprise that pharma has begun dipping its toes in digital waters. The pandemic has simply compelled it to become fully immersed. “Before COVID-19, pharma was already driving toward more innovative data presentation methods with the use of AI, data visualisation, virtual expert engagement and enhanced digital content,” says Teresa. “As we entered lockdown, a number of congresses – for example DDW, AUA and ASCO – moved quickly to provide for scientific exchange using a number of virtual/digital enhancements, including audio abstracts, audio-visual poster presentations and voice-over slide presentations. ASCO alone has moved to providing live session broadcasts and on-demand availability of oral, poster and track-based scientific symposia.

There are inherent challenges in using these technologies, including the limitations and experience of the presenter(s) and the ability to work within the boundaries established by the congress. However, having gone further along the journey towards virtual congress experiences, it’s unlikely we’ll completely revert to the old ways of working once social distancing is finally over.

“After COVID-19, it could become standard practice for congresses to provide virtual sessions and digital access to content. Pharma can help reshape the traditional and predominantly faceto-face landscape through sharing of alreadydeveloped best practices, technologies and sponsorship of virtual programmes – to enhance and promote broader audience reach to countries, scientists and healthcare professionals when travel is limited by health risk, cost and clinic work.”

The R-Rate

The arrival of that post-pandemic phase is impossible to predict. What does seem certain, however, is that we won’t see a return to the world as we knew it. We’ve already adapted to a new normal – the ‘next normal’ will merely build on what we’ve learned. And when it comes to virtual congresses, it seems that – despite the early successes – there’s room to learn an awful lot more. At the moment, we’re just consolidating.

The CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, thinks that the world will go through three phases during and beyond the pandemic: Respond, Recover, Reimagine. This alternative focus on the R-Rate certainly translates to medical congresses. “The initial response was one of panic, but we’ve quickly moved to the Recovery phase,” said Harry Sharman, Head of Strategy, Ashfield Digital and Creative. “Unfortunately, that recovery has largely relied on another R: replication. So far, most organisers are simply trying to replicate the face-to-face model, online. But it doesn’t work. The concept of repurposing an offline event for a virtual environment, and hosting it across the same two-day period that you’ve always adopted, is problematic. The time-zone challenges alone are a nightmare. If the expectation that delegates from all over the world will log in for eight hours each day isn’t fanciful enough, the idea that they’ll spend their lunch break in a virtual booth exploring a VR experience created by pharma med ed seems highly unlikely. As a quick form of recovery, digital replication of the offline model is understandable – but we must rapidly advance to the ‘Reimagine’ phase.

“One option is to completely reconfigure the congress model – by thinking about time in a different way. If we liberate ourselves from the idea that virtual congresses have to take place within the same fixed window as the face-to-face event, suddenly we can start to use time – and digital media – much more effectively. We’ve been exploring the concept of ‘temporal engagement events’, where digital content is released ahead of the ‘congress’ and available for delegates to consume on demand.

That scientific content – which can be visualised and presented by KOLs in innovative, digitally enhanced ways – provides the platform for a virtual engagement event, for example, one week later. Here, those same KOLs can present bite-sized ‘recap’ summaries, then lead interactive sessions with delegates where the science is debated. This further extends the discussion of data, providing the interaction and engagement that’s currently missing from virtual congresses. The approach, which also offers rich opportunity for personalised content marketing throughout the ‘event’ cycle, provides multiple layers of engagement – and allows organisers and sponsors to maximise the strengths of digital media.”

Connections and collaborations are crucial, but content is king

Naturally, human-to-human interaction has been the biggest casualty of the move to virtual congresses. This was always likely to be so; Zoom and Teams may have kept the world connected through lockdown, but they’re no substitute for real-world contact. Ironically, interaction is one of digital’s core strengths – but presently it’s not being maximised. “Interactivity is our biggest challenge,” said Christian Guhlke, Managing Partner and Director Digital, infill healthcare communication. “We know that physicians primarily go to congresses for education – but they also value the peer-to-peer exchange; the coffee with a colleague, the chatter between sessions, the drink at the bar… These are the important moments when the science presented at congresses is interpreted and contextualised. Currently, that element is missing, with effort largely focused on bringing the physical congress into the virtual world. I’m not sure this is the right way to go. For example, do we really expect delegates to pop into a ‘virtual booth’ on their way to the next presentation? I’m not convinced. The mindset is still stuck in the physical world when we need to be focusing on interaction, participation and networking.”

“Collaboration is the best way through,” said Christian. “Organisers, pharma companies and target audiences need to come together in a ‘design thinking’ process to figure out how we can rework the model. With virtual, the boundaries of time become meaningless, presenting new opportunities for education on-demand. For instance, if you’re fed up with having to choose between parallel sessions – and invariably picking the wrong one – a Netflixstyle model means you could actually participate in both, at a time that suits you. Similarly, we could expand the congress life cycle – with content, networking and interactive learning extending far beyond the one-week moment-in-time. The possibilities are limitless – and they bring associated benefits of immersive learning that potentially could be huge. But to realise them, we need to embrace collaboration and open-minded thinking to work our way through a change management process. All the key stakeholder groups must work together to co-create innovations that transform the congress experience, and deliver educational content in ways that engage and inspire. Ultimately though, content is king. Virtual gives us the chance to breathe new life into scientific exchange. It’s time to be brave… and go with the flow.”

The virtual learning curve

The pandemic’s impact on all types of medical education has been profound, triggering an increase in the perceived value of virtual engagement across all formats. HCP appetite for virtual learning, and the use of digital tools for timely information and clinical decision support, is growing. “COVID-19 has significantly altered the world of medical education, and is likely to continue to drive change,” Adrian Duncan, Group Vice President, Head of Global Education, Medscape. “Pharma can play a major role in reshaping medical congresses by embracing the digital options available. The delivery of content in a virtual environment offers many opportunities – from the platform and approach, to interactive features, gaming and accessibility. These opportunities allow for the creation of content to meet a variety of learning styles and goals. However, it’s important to align the education format to the content needs.”

As we’ve already seen, one of the main advantages of live events is peer-to-peer connection. “This is a key component of learning that has a high impact on physicians,” says Adrian. “It’s therefore important that digital solutions incorporate the capability for interaction to help clinicians learn from their peers via shared experiences. Similarly, audience engagement is crucial. It’s important to keep the human element of engagement in mind, especially in situations where a live educational event may be moved to virtual. This involves truly understanding the learner experience and providing interactions that simulate the live experience that they may be missing. This includes things such as live discussions, peer-to-peer networking and engaging delivery platforms that can be accessed when, where and how learners prefer. A challenge to this approach, particularly in the current environment, may include digital fatigue. This is why it’s so important that content is stimulating, relevant, personalised and consumable.”

Digital platforms provide the unique ability to produce a variety of data points that provide insights into user or learner behaviour and interests. “This data is incredibly useful in personalising a site experience to meet the preferences of individual learners, such as content recommendations,” said Adrian. “This helps to ensure that the right content is getting to the right audience and that each individual may be more likely to engage as their interests are more closely aligned to the information they are served. It’s also helpful in the medical education world to identify learning gaps for healthcare professionals and thus future educational needs.”

A platform for engagement

So what impact is the move to virtual likely to have on attendance levels? If anything, there’s a chance these could increase. Attracting delegates may well be the easy bit. Persuading them to stay – and stay interested – is potentially a bigger battle.

“We’re likely to see a change in attendee profiles rather than a physical drop in numbers,” said Nick Burgoyne, Client Services Director, Healthcare, the Purple Agency. Virtual events remove many of the logistical barriers that impact face-to-face attendance – and their reach and accessibility open up real opportunity. However, there’s still the challenge of getting people to actually log in – and keeping them engaged once they have. Content is key. Without the energy of a big theatre or the direct engagement of face-toface interaction, content must be built to engage in different ways if it’s to retain its audience. We need to leverage more of the direct and immediate engagement tools that digital platforms offer. Tools like live-chat, Q&As, live polls, social engagement and instant downloads provide a great way to get a read of the room in real time.”

“Digital engagement platforms already offer a lot of customisable tools and delivery mechanisms to help create the best experience – and to enable the kind of interactions that we know are valuable in physical events,” said Nick. “Many provide the ability for users to customise their experience, including multiple ways of facilitating user engagement and opportunities to set up direct webcam chats with speakers or make connections through integration with social platforms like LinkedIn. Gamification, AI and AR are already in play and will all contribute to the elevation of the digital experience for all parties. The challenge will be trying to humanise the experience. People like congresses for the buzz, the social element and the serendipity of meeting likeminded people. The trick is to ensure we treat digital as an enabler and keep an eye on what people want. There’s likely to be a lot of latitude in how people are prepared to engage. The real prize will be working out what works and what to keep.”

Living the virtual reality

The world of medical congress has come a long way in just a few short weeks – but there’s so much further to go. What’s more, when the pandemic is behind us, congress communities are unlikely to walk back on the progress they’ve made or the mindset shifts that COVID-19 has driven. According to the PCMA survey, most events planners think the virtual model is here to stay, with many believing it will continue alongside in-person events rather than simply replacing them. That seems like a fair assessment – but if COVID has taught us anything, it’s that predicting the future is unwise. That said, my February 2020 op-ed on the need to rethink medical congresses forecast that tomorrow’s leaders would ‘embrace disruption’. I was right. But in a way that I could never imagine. In the spirit of Satya Nadella’s 3-R cycle, it’s time for congresses to move to the ‘Reimagine’ phase – and shape up for the virtual reality.

Chris Ross is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries

16th June 2020

Chris Ross is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries

16th June 2020

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