Principles for COVID-19 Healthcare Communications – 2 – The Virtual Medical Meeting

Virtually everyone is going virtual. Even in February, which seems like a very long time ago, many organizers began either postponing or canceling major conferences and meetings. This has included major medical meetings and given that large gatherings will be the last type of activity to resume some sort of normalcy in the future, it is quite likely that many more will make announcements that meetings are going to be virtual in the foreseeable future. There are many communications issues associated with this new way of having a major medical meeting.

The coronavirus pandemic is a challenge to medical meetings on two fronts. First medical societies must address the logistics of a virtual meeting. But given the realities of conducting clinical trials in a time of contagion the exchange of future data may mean that meetings will contain less information than in the past, if held at all. Here is a great resource providing an overview of clinical trial disruption on a company-by-company basis.

Medical conferences are dynamic in nature fulfilling a number of important purposes. First and foremost of course they are the venues for the exchange and presentation of scientific data. Results from clinical studies for new treatments are presented not only for the practitioners in attendance, but for media and patient organizations. This provides a finger on the pulse of progress, representing not only scientific advancement and positioning companies vis a vis their investors, but hope for those whose future may rely on the advances in science and medicine. They are also a venue representing multiple commercial opportunities. And it is a place where networking occurs – where patients, investors, innovators, scientists and companies can engage in dialog and even protest. It is all reported out by media, both top tier and trade. So how does all of that happen virtually?

Virtual conferences have had to happen in short order and it seems apparent that those organizing such events are building the bicycle while riding it. There is no guidebook or established set of best practices for this. The various ways for stakeholders to participate – from presenters to patients – is likely going to vary and over time, the experience is likely to improve. There are, of course, any range of virtual tools available and platforms by which information can be exchanged. Tools used by participants obviously should include multi-media press kits that contain as many separable and shareable components as possible such as podcasts and videos. Here is where stakeholder organizations that have invested in their social media muscle will see some of that work payoff. And it is also where those who have established lines of digital communication with stakeholders – some of whom will be key opinion leaders and patient organizations – will also experience the wisdom of that investment. While always an important factor, having others to carry your water for you – your messages and content – beyond the venue is even more essential in a virtual setting than it was in a more traditional one.

But of course one of the most important aspects of data presentation is the media who write about the data. These days COVID-19 is taking all of the oxygen out of the mainstream media room. But for trade media, it is still important news. I asked some colleagues to reach out to a few reporters and ask them about operating in this virtual environment. Here is some of the wisdom that was captured for both meeting organizers and presenters:

  • Pre-meeting materials. A big, long, in-person meeting is being compressed into a short-time window on a computer screen. That makes it even more important to help reporters plan and prepare before a meeting starts with advance access to materials such as abstracts.
  • Embargoed updated data. While pre-meeting materials play an important role they can be out of date by time of the presentation starts. Sharing embargoed data in an email or with a link the day before a presentation facilitates reporters’ ability to get the story right.
  • Prior Access for Interviews. Ideally both presenters and executives who can provide some context for the data beyond the study should be available before a presentation rather than after.
  • Accessible and Digestible Materials. Posters and slide decks should be made available online at the time of the presentation either through link or QR code. The maximum time for a webinar should be 3 hours in length with breaks built in for each hour as reporters are still required to be available to others during the time spent covering the conference.
  • Virtual Press Room. There should be a meeting place for the reporter and interviewee with such a venue allowing for both to dial into a virtual press room and enter a private chat for conducting an interview.

These are obviously only meant to be thought starters, but come from the perspective of a few trade reporters. Not only should the pharma, the medical and professional societies organizing medical meetings should take note, but FDA as well as the agency undoubtedly is involved in planning eventual virtual Advisory Committee meetings.

Eventually the bicycle will be built and once done, there will be many ways to improve it. What becomes the central question now, given the wrinkle in future data, is for how long?

Photo by Tyler Callahan on Unsplash

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