The medical conference is dead. Long live the medical conference.

minutes to read

In just a few months, the coronavirus pandemic has radically disrupted the world of medical conferences. What does this mean for healthcare providers, patient organizations, medical societies, pharmaceutical companies, and health marketing agencies?

Let’s explore the significant underlying change drivers and possible long-term implications that COVID-19 has and will have on medical conferences in 2020 and beyond.

As new teleconferencing technologies have emerged and developed, making live digital communications much more accessible, we’ve seen a slow yet persistent uptake among the medical community. But, we were no means ready for what the novel coronavirus had to offer:
• Global, protective social distancing procedures
• Government orders to cease non-essential business operations
• Banning of events of over 50 people (location-dependent)

Millennial doctors may have been excellent advocates for telemedicine consultations as we entered 2020. But, when a worldwide viral pandemic took effect, it made our prior efforts to transition to digital healthcare seem pretty pitiful.

Medical societies responded particularly slowly and conservatively to sudden, strict event curtailment. After all, there was no way of knowing just how quickly the coronavirus would spread, nor how long it would take us to get a handle on it, medically speaking.

As we enter the second half of 2020, many virtual medical conferences have already taken place, for which we are now able to gather and interpret data to help re-assess our marketing strategies. What have we learned from our forced digital shift?

Unsurprisingly, many healthcare practitioners love that they’re now able to attend medical conferences from the comfort of their own home – eliminating travel time and costs, loss of family time, and the need to wear clothing. Doctors have even reported that their overall educational experience at virtual conferences is just as good, if not better, than if they had attended in person. There’s also the added bonus of having easy, global access to content now. However, there are some definite downsides to medical conferences that take place virtually. For one, it makes networking incredibly challenging. It’s harder to connect with other, like-minded professionals from behind a screen – especially if there are so many attendees that your face is hidden behind walls of security measures and subject to organizational barriers. There are also time-zone differences to consider. And, there’s always someone who can’t see or hear anything, despite having been able to access the same platform just hours previously with no issues.

In an online survey conducted by Medscape Oncology in May, almost 70% of healthcare providers said that they will not be attending ASCO21 (The American Society of Clinical Oncology’s 2021 conference) if there is still no effective, accessible coronavirus vaccine – a long way off yet. The results of a similar poll showed that half of doctors in the United Kingdom would prefer to attend virtual conferences until June 2021 than in person or not at all.

The vast majority of healthcare providers say they will not attend in-person medical conferences until there’s a coronavirus vaccine available.

How might these preliminary data, and other COVID-related factors, determine the fate of medical societies, pharmaceutical companies, and health marketing agencies?

Assuming that more medical professionals will be able to attend continued education and trade show conferences as we enter 2021 is not unreasonable, given that they now have online global accessibility. Virtual medical conferences, thus far, also seem to have been able to retain the quality and quantity of their materials, with many having identical scientific programmes to their historic in-person counterparts. This should mean that, after some initial investment in audio-technical equipment, medical societies, Pharma companies, and marketing agencies could save a lot of money by switching over to online events.

On the flip side, there have already been substantial financial losses in the medical communications industry, due to all of the last minute event cancellations in the first half of 2020, that need to be accounted for. Event organizers must become considerably more tech savvy, digitally competent, and aligned with the ideals of millennials in order to sustainably attract attendees and deliver virtual content impactfully. It’s imperative that medical organizations listen closely to the preferences of their members and develop new business models to better accommodate such needs as we see no imminent end to the pandemic.

Virtual sponsors and exhibitors in 2020 have been shelling out tens of thousands of dollars, across an array of investment bands, to snag a spot at medical conferences in the midst of COVID-19. New, “hybrid healthcare” business models are crucial in ensuring attendees of all sources have a worthwhile experience. For example, traditional in-person activities are offered at a live venue with social distancing measures in play, whereas an interactive online virtual experience is made available to participants in COVID-19 high-risk categories (e.g. elders and immunocompromised individuals) who cannot otherwise attend.

In a survey of 2,700 members of a leading European medical society, 83% said they prefer hybrid event formats to conventional conferences.

It’s not as simple as it may seem. Hybrid medical conferences present significant new challenges to medical societies, Pharma companies, and health marketing agencies.
• How will they facilitate social interaction between their attendees online?
• Which sponsor and exhibitor options can they provide?
• Can you have thousands of people in a virtual event at the same time without malfunction?
• How will they track engagement and virtual experiences?

The current state of affairs is that most upcoming medical conferences are still listed online as if they are going ahead. Whereas, in reality, nobody knows if they will be able to take place – business as usual – or if they will need to be moved online or cancelled altogether. Healthcare companies are looking to each other to see who’s pioneering and how to pivot successfully. And, with no sign of a viable coronavirus vaccine on the cards, timelines of “getting back to normal” are pretty ambiguous. It’s expected that virtual conferences will continue to dominate throughout 2021 and into 2022/2023 until more hybrid solutions are created and refined and COVID is a thing of the past.

Sophie Ash, BSc (Hons), DipION, NNCP is a Freelance Medical Writer and Pharma Copywriter based in Toronto. She writes educational and advertorial content for HCPs, patients, and drug companies across a wide range of therapeutic areas with her company, MedComms Solutions.