The future of medical congresses

The mega congresses of the past look likely to make way for more virtual, focused and, probably, hybrid physical/digital events
By Katie Osborne on Aug 18, 2020

Remember when pharma invested an enormous amount of time, effort and money into attending medical congresses around the world? 
In the pandemic-blighted present, where all such global physical events have been put on hold, it seems an age away. 
Many organisations – Reuters Events Pharma and ASCO to name but two - took immediate action and successfully transitioned their events to a digital format in record time; others were more risk-averse and chose to postpone events pending more certainty.
So what's going to happen to medical congresses now?
Christoph Schmidt, former Global Head of Commercial Excellence at Actelion Pharmaceuticals believes the pandemic accelerated a trend that was already moving towards a more digitally mature set-up. 
He predicts that the days of mega congresses, where upwards of 100,000 physicians would travel from all over the world to congregate in a single venue, are over.
“In the future such events will be on a much smaller scale with broadcasts over social media and information sharing through different channels,” says Schmidt.
He points to research that shows the information-seeking preferences of healthcare professionals have changed over the years. Many now demanding content in a format, on a channel and at a time that is convenient to them.
Jessica Federer, Former Chief Digital Officer at Bayer, agrees: “The trend was already moving away from having so many people come together physically because the travel, economic and environmental impact was so high.”
This is contrary to what happens with customers during face-to-face meetings in a public place or in a huge live event where they can be confronted with many distractions. This “one-on-one” aspect of webinars enables pharma to open a line of digital communication that can extend beyond the webinar, says Haider Alleg, Global Head of Digital Excellence for Ferring Pharmaceuticals.
“Post-webinar becomes all about where you take the customer experience and how you extend it. Are you organizing a collateral event with a few people who are happy to dive into a topic with a key opinion leader? Are you sharing a white paper or a reprint on a topic where a landing page will collect data?” 
In other words, a webinar paves the way for pharma to take customers to the next level of engagement. In this respect, webinars are just as much about the follow-up engagement as they are about the event itself.
Putting the customer at the centre

She believes there is now a moral obligation on the healthcare industry to take the lead on working out how to continue driving business, creating value and sharing best practice in a way that ensures the least risk of COVID transmission.
“We have a responsibility to embrace digital solutions because if any sector understands the impact of COVID-19 it’s going to be the healthcare space,” she says. “If we’re able to achieve similar results through a virtual platform, with less of a negative impact on our world, then I think we have a responsibility to do that.”
The pandemic left companies with no choice but to start using virtual platforms and forced them to put the customer more at the centre of their offering.
But it is well-documented that the pharmaceutical industry is behind many other sectors in terms of digital transformation, so much head-scratching has ensued as companies try to predict what will happen going forward. 
Luca Dezzani, Vice President of US Medical Affairs, Oncology, at Eisai believes we will emerge from the pandemic with new-look medical congresses whereby the positives from digital will be harnessed and combined with aspects of the traditional approach.
A hybrid model

“I think moving forward with a hybrid model is the most likely and indeed, hearing from colleagues, the most favoured model whereby those who are willing and able to travel and to be there in person can do so but at the same time those who are, for whatever reason, not willing or able to travel, can join by video conference. We combine the best of both worlds.”
Indeed, for many this would be a win-win scenario.
Giovanni Di Sarro, Global Digital Solutions Senior Business Partner at Lundbeck also predicts a new blended model where physical contact will be retained for those still wanting to travel, but new technologies will enhance and augment that experience.
He believes we are at the beginning of a new reality: “The pandemic has helped people realise the opportunities to engage customers in a different way,” he says. “This is now an additional touchpoint.”
But for a hybrid model to be successful, he cautions, digital capabilities must improve. He foresees huge growth in technologies such as AI, chatbots, virtual rooms and learning platforms.
Schmidt says the pandemic has shone a light on some of the limitations of solely using digital media. Content needs to be packaged in a far more engaging and interactive format, he says, with much more sophisticated profiling, segmentation and targeting of customers to enable the right content to be directed to the right audience at the right time.
Seeking serendipity

Pharmaceutical companies should be ready to take the lead, says Di Sarro, and support medical companies to accelerate the digital transformation.
However Schmidt points out that, according to research, up to half of medical experts attend physical conferences not simply for the educational content, but for face-to-face interaction with colleagues and networking opportunities.
It is difficult to replace spontaneous human interaction and those serendipitous meetings that often happen at conferences and result in successful collaborations further down the line, he says.
But according to Dezzani, this year there has been “a dramatic shift” towards social media for the all-important interaction and networking opportunities.
“The data is one thing that can be done very effectively in a virtual space but some of the value gained from these events is to engage and ask questions of the presenters,” he says.
“This year at ASCO I was following on two separate screens – one was the programme, the other was my Twitter feed because there was so much discussion happening there.”

More engagement, not less

He says approximately forty-two thousand people attended ASCO this year – a record number – with about 35% of them active on Twitter.
Federer goes further and believes digital will actually enable far greater engagement than takes place at physical events.
"Certainly, the barrier to entry will be lower,” she says. “There are so many women and family caregivers who are not able to travel to conferences who were almost cut out of presenting and attending and networking because they had to stay home with a family or caring for their parents. Digital will expand access to these people.”
Federer took part in a fireside chat with Paul Simms at this year’s digital eyeforpharma conference. She says: “Normally at a physical meeting when you finish a talk, there’s maybe a line of five or six people that come up to speak to you afterwards and then others make a mental note to call you or switch business cards with you  at happy hour,” she says. 
“But this year people were already sitting at their computers, so they were able to draft an email based on what had been discussed, that triggered a thought about a collaboration and they were able to act on it instantly. The engagement and follow-up from my conversation with Paul was spectacular with potential for great partnerships and collaborations.”
However, there are also inherent challenges in transitioning from a traditional to a virtual format, with many industry leaders worried about losing a business model that is wholly reliant on people physically attending an event.
Different expectations

Mark Johnson, Director of Digital Engagements, Global Medical  Information & Operations, at GSK, says: “We are keeping a watchful eye on what happens. It has been very interesting to see how accepting different groups are of the digital piece. In my role I have been pushing for years to get everyone to change their minds and go digital but, as they say, be careful what you wish for.”
Johnson thinks the medical congress world is currently in a “bit of a knee-jerk reaction” and the picture will become clearer later in the year.
But what is certain, he says, is that there will be a great deal of innovation and change in the platform space. The future of digital conferencing? Potentially very positive, he says. A seamless experience, with people virtually moving around stands, pharma companies sitting in virtual chat rooms, enabling access to a different type of audience.
“On the positive side,” he says, “digital gives a different angle where someone not comfortable physically visiting a stand, could be more comfortable doing so in a digital space, delegates can re-visit keynotes from previous years, data and documentation is available on demand.”
But he also warns of the inherent risks. “When you go digital there is a different layer of expectation. You don’t have experts wandering around, they have to be directed. You risk overcompensating in terms of measurement and suddenly it’s a case of where did they go? Where did they go next and then you massively increase the data. This in turn can drive different behaviours and then you lose the organic nature of the event, the natural interactions.”
There is also the question of quantity versus quality – do we want thousands of attendees or is it the quality of interactions with certain attendees we are after?
And there are governance and compliance considerations too, he says. “As soon as you go digital you could be speaking to ten or ten thousand people. It could be being recorded. In terms of products we have prescribing behaviours in one market that are very different to another. How do we manage the extra risk?”
There are currently more questions than answers but what seems certain is that the medical congress landscape will change. Whether that is for the better or not remains to be seen.
Much will depend on how people will be feeling about travel, whether costs will be prohibitive, and if a vaccine becomes available.
It looks increasingly likely that a blended model will emerge combining the best of digital with aspects of physical.  Pharma must now rise to the challenge, be prepared to adapt and embrace cutting-edge technology because if it doesn’t, it could risk losing one of the biggest opportunities it currently has to connect effectively with medical experts.

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