Beyond Jimmy Buffett: The New Medical Conference

The new reality of medical conferences shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic requires not only a new language but also a fundamental rethink to make these major showcases of medical organizations and societies a place where physicians and patients can share their experiences and perspectives.

We can no longer characterize medical conferences as – in the words of an old Jimmy Buffet tune – “a Holiday Inn full of surgeons” who meet there every year and “exchange physician stories and get drunk on Tuborg beer.”

That is the unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from a webcast held earlier this week featuring Len Starnes, a Berlin-based digital healthcare consultant and close observer in medical conference trends. The webcast is part of a regular series hosted by Peter Llewellyn for MedComms Networking.

A year ago, Starnes presented to the same webinar series and outlined how the COVID-19 pandemic had caused most medical conferences to become virtual in nature. Then, he predicted all medical conferences hosted by associations or societies would be held virtually until at least the last quarter of 2021. In reality, few if any major medical conferences were in-person only 2021 due to the ongoing pandemic and this trend is now extending into 2022.

The new reality – which dominated much of the current webinar discussion – focused on the ascendance of “hybrid” medical conferences featuring a combination of in-person and virtual components. With physicians having discovered the benefits of virtual meetings and now wanting a choice in how they experience conferences, this approach that allowing both synchronous and asynchronous learning is here to stay.

One of the major features of the new medical conference, said Starnes, is that they now feature “more opportunity” for including patients and “could be a radical breakthrough for patients and patient organizations.”

Despite patients having had a presence on the agendas of some medical conferences for more than a decade and the formal Patients Included movement putting its stamp of approval of medical meetings since the mid-2010s, what we may be seeing is a more fundamental shift.

“Basically now, there’s no more discussion about the value patients bring,” said Starnes.”It looks like we may be moving into a new area of patient participation.”

“Patients and patient organizations have told me it is important (to acknowledge) patients are not just there to listen, they are also there to present. They can present their experiences of being on a drug … or whatever it is and explain to doctors what it means, for them. Patient organizations say it’s very important that doctors understand what they’re doing from a patient perspective.”

In the webcast, Starnes was joined by Ilan Ben Ezri, CEO of G-Med, a social physician-only community with 1.5 million members from more than 160 countries. A survey of 1206 physicians from countries conducted by G-Med in 2021 showed an even split between preferences for in-person, virtual or hybrid medical meetings with the preference for in-person meetings being greatest in the youngest (aged 20-40) group of physicians.

In discussing the future of medical conferences, Ben Ezri implied the drive for patient-inclusion may get pushback from physicians who still want to discuss their study findings in a peer to peer environment.

However, Starnes noted there is a counter-view that “excluding patients is not really appropriate”. He cited a European Medicines Agency statement that input of real world patient data is “absolutely crucial.” The opportunity to share perspectives in order to support the paradigm shift to shared-decision making is something health care “can’t avoid,” he said.

Another fundamental challenge to the more active participation of patients at medical conferences is a regulatory one that can restrict physicians from reporting data from new drug trials to audiences that include non-physicians. However, Ben Ezri pointed out the fluid nature of the new hybrid medical conference could get around this by creating some sessions restricted only to physicians (although patient groups could well argue that it would be much more appropriate to change the regulations concerning reporting of pharmaceutical data).

Cost is another issue. Medical conferences saw attendance skyrocket early in the pandemic when there was no registration fees and patients benefitted from this. But with medical societies facing the necessity of having to reinstate often hefty registration fees to cover costs, many patients or patient organizations with no financial backers may once again be left in the cold.

And let’s not forget equity and the reality that may patients who should be in the room at a conference to present their unique perspectives may have neither the time or capability to attend – although here again the virtual option may present new opportunities.

Many questions indeed but those witnessing the dominant social media participation of the Creaky Joints arthritis patient community at last fall’s American College of Rheumatology meeting or IBD Moms at last month’s Crohn’s and Colitis Congress are seeing how this new future looks.

A full recording of the webcast with Starnes and Ben Ezri can be accessed here.


2 thoughts on “Beyond Jimmy Buffett: The New Medical Conference

  1. Thank you for this, Pat. As you point out, there has been a seismic shift in the organization of all conferences (not just medical meetings) thanks to the pandemic. The upside of virtual conferences is overwhelming: lower cost (arguably less important to docs than to patients), wider accessibility, being able to sleep in your own bed, fewer days away from family, and – as important! – lower environmental threat (consider the air travel alone for events like the European Society of Cardiology – the largest gathering of cardiologists on earth, and this year a hybrid event from Barcelona).

    When you write “the drive for patient-inclusion may get pushback from physicians who still want to discuss their study findings in a peer to peer environment…”, it reminded me of an (older) physician I met a few years ago at a social event who, upon learning that I was leaving town the next morning to speak at a Mayo Clinic conference on women and heart disease, interrupted me to say: “I spend all day in the clinic listening to patients. Why should I have to listen to patients when I go to my conferences?” That is quite the profound pushback! We patients are perceived as interlopers by docs like these, unwanted party-crashers in an elite boys’ club.

    I’ve attended a number of medical conferences either in the audience, as a patient speaker onstage, or more often with media accreditation in order to cover the proceedings for my Heart Sisters blog readers. The latter are my favourites, because I can reach a far wider audience than only those in the room, while translating med-jargon into patient-friendly language for heart patients who can’t be there. And even virtually, I can still interview docs to learn more about their specific research papers. I appreciate any opportunity to do this – no matter the venue.

    Thanks again Pat.

  2. Timely article. I would have added tha the hybrid form is the MOST expensive as virtual is muh more expensive than was initially thought. Like the patient aspect too. Johny

    J. Van Aerde, MD, MA, PhD, FRCPC Exec Medical Director – Canadian Society of Physician Leaders Clinical Professor of Pediatrics (emeritus) – Univ of Alberta Office: (250) 323-1608 Mobile: (250) 802-5097 Twitter @NEON8Light ____________________________________ This email message and its attachments are intended only for the named recipient(s) and may contain privileged or confidential information / exempt from disclosure under applicable law. If you have received this message in error, please notify the named recipient(s) and immediately delete this message and any attachments.


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