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Follow the user – democratising medical conference design

By Ute E Schmidt

Until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, digitalisation of medical congresses was slow.

Attendees mostly met in person and on-site and preferred to discuss the latest findings over a glass of wine in the often-attractive congress city rather than online and via webinar. With the advent of a highly contagious virus, priorities changed and the wish to avoid infection became as strong as the need to learn about the virus’s implications for one’s own indication.

As a result, organisers and attendees quickly adapted to the virtual methods of delivering and receiving the latest scientific data.

Virtual delivery

A comparative look at visitor numbers in 2019 and 2020 pre- and during COVID-19 reveals that virtual delivery did not deter HCPs from attending congresses, quite the opposite.

While visitor numbers at the meetings of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (42,500 vs 45,000 attendees) and the European Society for Medical Oncology (27,940 vs >30,000) increased incrementally, the curve of the European Respiratory Society congress (22,094 vs 33,784) saw its 2019 demographic increased by more than 50%.

This exponential growth may be explained by the fact that patients of this specialist group were considered most at risk of the virus at that time. However, that can only be part of the explanation.

Why do HCPs attend medical meetings?

Their motivation is multifaceted: they want  to increase their knowledge of the latest research, gain new insights into clinical practice and new products, meet global experts and opinion leaders, and discuss all the above with their peers. There also used to be the lure to see a city one had not visited before.

Now that the congress venue is the HCPs’ own office, it is up to them to create that protected time when they can engage with the latest science without distraction. This can be a potentially difficult task. However, this form of delivery has its own benefits: without the need to travel, expenses have significantly reduced as have the attendance fees.

The ensuing efficiencies of virtual participation and the positive impact on the environment have inspired many HCPs to sign up for a congress this year – a fact that is illustrated by country attendance figures. Our data shows a marked increase of visitors from South America and India which translates to an increased reach of the activities undertaken on behalf of our clients.

A more user-centric approach

The sudden change in delivery mode often inspired a more user-centric approach. Physicians benefited from user-friendly, interactive platforms that took the appearance of live congress booths, included interactive elements and gamified contents in several major European languages.

Search and filter functions enabled physicians to locate congress materials easily, and remotely produced satellite symposia brought live congress features seamlessly into a virtual setting. The fact that they could be accessed live as well as having ongoing playback options offers user accessibility after the event, provides time efficiency and also made up for some of the initial technical teething problems. It also makes such platforms sustainable resources.

Permanently accessible and constantly updated for relevant congresses, meeting hubs have started to turn into a continuing medical education resource in their own right. This has helped exhibitors to build lasting relationships with the HCP community.

Despite all the virtual wizardry of email, online and video chat, current solutions have not been able to deliver on the dimension of human interaction, let alone in creating the buzz that envelops an onsite meeting.

Engaging with the new format

Judging from the experiences of the first virtual congress season, HCPs have been happy to engage with the new format. The rising attendance figures seem to provide the proof of concept that virtual conferences are well accepted in the HCP community regardless of age group or tech affinity – a phenomenon that will endure beyond COVID-19.

It is therefore very likely that post-pandemic events will be conducted in a hybrid format, allowing online and onsite attendance.

Whether the upward trend of attending continues in 2021 will largely depend on the way that medical societies curate the meetings. It is hoped that they will continue to follow the trend for democratisation.

Another look at the 2020 European Respiratory Society statistics illustrates the high value attached to discussion and peer exchange: the sessions with the highest viewing times were grand rounds, clinic and COVID-19 sessions. This also shows that interactivity is key for any type of future medical event.

Ute E Schmidt is Senior Consultant at infill healthcare communication

In association with

14th April 2021

From: Marketing

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