Virtual medical conferences are here … forever.

From Len Starnes, LinkedIn profile page

Gleaning the latest clinical findings and CME from medical conferences while sitting in front of a computer in your sweatpants will be the reality for most of 2021 … if not forever.

That’s the unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from a recent webcast presented by Len Starnes, a Berlin-based digital healthcare consultant and keen observer in medical conference trends. The webcast was part of a regular series hosted by Peter Llewellyn for MedComms Networking.

Starnes predicted that all medical conferences hosted by associations or societies will be held virtually until at least the last quarter of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And while many physicians miss the personal interaction and networking associated with in-person meetings, he said a recent survey reported the experiences of physicians with virtual meetings over the past year has been “significantly better than expected” with 92% now stating they are willing to consider attending a virtual event.

And this trend could grow. Starnes noted millennials and Gen Z’ers will comprise the majority of the physician population by 2030. He said these physicians are already more likely to attend virtual meetings and have climate change as their number one priority meaning they will be pushing for more meetings that do not require extensive travel.

As for medical societies and associations, Starnes said, those that held virtual annual conferences or congresses during the pandemic suffered “massive financial losses.” Squeezed between the increasing rates charged by virtual meeting platform companies and pressure to keep registration costs low for virtual meetings, he said, some association face extinction if they are unable to adapt to the virtual meeting format.

On the positive side, Starnes said, medical societies witnessed huge increases in registration to their congresses, in part because of the decision to waive registration fees or to dramatically lower them. He identified the European Society of Cardiology as an example of a society who offered free registration and saw the number of registrants to their annual scientific sessions triple.

Starnes noted that many medical associations are still committed to hold in-person conferences in 2021, #ASCO21 in Chicago in June being perhaps the largest and most prominent. However, Starnes predicted it would be impossible for such in-person meetings to occur prior to the last quarter of 2021 at the earliest because of continued concerns about COVID-19.

Many of the virtual medical conferences held in Europe and North America last year were of high quality, Starnes said, but he noted medical societies have significant work to do to improve the personal experience and networking opportunities for delegates.

The same is true for pharmaceutical companies. Starnes said virtual exhibition halls to date have not been “fit for purpose” and have failed to attract delegates. Much more work must be done by companies to give physicians a compelling reason to interact with them in a virtual format. He described it as “a formidable challenge” for pharma which has traditionally invested significant amounts in in-person conferences.

However, Starnes said, attracting pharmaceutical and medical technology companies to their conferences will be a major factor for medical associations as they plan virtual events in the future.

Much discussion at the webcast centred on hybrid conferences – those that provide an options for delegates to receive the same information whether they attend in-person or virtually. Starnes said few examples of this type of meeting are yet available and he could identify only two associations who plan to try this approach in 2021 – the Association for Medical Education in Glasgow in August and the European Academy for Allergy and Clinical Immunology in Krakow in July (although the virtual segment will be coordinated from Madrid). He said the logistical challenges of these types of meetings would make them hard to gain traction against either totally virtually or in-person events.

Other strategies for productively hosting virtual medical conferences were discussed, including allowing variable conference fees or “pay as you go” based on which sessions delegates chose to attend. Starnes said streaming some sessions or archiving proceedings and making them available for a period after the conference are also viable options. He said associations could productively expand the latter option by committing speakers to respond to questions posed by delegates at any time for a set period after the meeting.

Overall, Starnes said the state of play for medical conferences continues to be constantly changing and he said he expected it would continue to do so in the months ahead.

A full recording of the webcast can be accessed here.

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1 thought on “Virtual medical conferences are here … forever.

  1. Hi, Pat! Caroline Helwick here! I had a profitable year with virtual meetings because I could attend even more than I typically do, without any travel cost. BUT I did miss being onsite. Hard to imagine the future. Thanks for writing about this and hope you’re doing well!

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