Virtual Medical Conferences: How will Medical Affairs Adapt?

By Deborah Ebert Long
Senior Vice President Medical Affairs at Vertex Pharmaceuticals

Pre- and Post-Conference Activities: What Has Going Virtual Changed?

With large gatherings heavily restricted and COVID-19 cases still on the rise, there is no indication when medical conferences will resume regular in-person attendance. This makes it critical for medical science liaisons and other medical affairs professionals to adapt to the virtual conference environment.

Pre-Conference Prep

One of the challenges faced by medical science liaisons (MSLs) in the COVID-19 era is finding the appropriate time and channel to reach out to healthcare providers, many of whom are overwhelmed by the clinical challenges brought on by the pandemic. Connecting with Key Opinion Leaders/Key Thought Leaders (KOLs/KTLs) about an upcoming virtual conference is a great way to start a conversation that brings direct value to the KOL. Following up after the conference is equally important. Providing information in a well-organized, concise summary to those who were not able to attend is another way to bring value and open the lines of communication. (Be sure to check your company’s policies on providing information proactively to HCPs, and properly document any HCP requests to receive such information.)

Whether live or virtual, some of the necessary preparatory work for a medical congress remains the same. It is always important to research the competitive landscape in advance and see what data will be presented. It is also critical is to thoroughly familiarize yourself and your team with the conference schedule:

  • who will be speaking and when
  • poster presentations
  • networking breaks/receptions

Planning to Succeed

Assigning coverage of each session ensures nothing gets missed. Virtual conferences don’t require travel arrangements and hotel bookings. Instead, you should familiarize yourself ahead of time with the format and the platform that organizers will be using to host the conference to ensure your attendance goes smoothly.

You need a detailed plan for your in-conference activities. You need to know not only how you will be engaging your KOLs, but how will these interactions occur during the sessions? For example, will there be live Q&A and discussions? Having these logistics nailed down before the conference begins is very important. If you are running a virtual exhibit or booth for your company, look for ways to make it more interactive and to increase engagement. This takes some creativity, research, and out-of-the-box thinking to plan for the virtual environment.

At the Conference

One of the major advantages of virtual conferences is that HCPs who might not have been able to travel to attend are now able to be there virtually. This can potentially give you greater access to HCPs, especially since there are no mile-long halls to navigate through to find the person you are interested in talking to. Another advantage is that the sessions for some conferences are available on demand, allowing attendees to attend sessions that are held concurrently or access for HCPs who cannot attend the live session.

Influence Mapping and Social Media

Being able to see who is attending different virtual sessions can provide a wealth of insight. You gain a new roadmap for which topics particularly interests your KOLs. You also have an opportunity to understand which of their colleagues have common research interests. This can be particularly helpful if you are looking for up-and-comers in the thought leader community. Or when you need an introduction to a new KOL through an existing relationship.

Keep an eye on social media and follow important pertinent hashtags. Attending from home or the office means not having access to social cues in live settings, but social media can be a rich source of insight into how the medical community is reacting to the presented information. As always, be sure you continue to follow your company’s policies on social media engagement.

Post-Conference Activities

Many “on-demand” access options for talks you may have missed or want to listen to again are available only for a limited time, which makes it important to understand the plans for the conference content before the conference ends. Find out about the availability of any presentations your company made at the conference and obtain those links to be able to provide to any KOLs who request them.

“On-demand” platforms increase accessibility in theory by releasing HCPs from the requirement to attend at a specific time for a live presentation. However, the reality on the ground is that if presentations are available on demand, it’s easy for people to push the content to the mental back burner and then never quite get around to it. A conversation with the KOL and a follow up email with the link can remind the KOL of the value and newness of your company’s data.

Insights and Predictive Analytics

Just as you would with a live conference, you should still prepare a report of all of the key insights that you collected to present internally to your colleagues. If your company presented or had a booth, predictive analytics will be a major asset to produce medical insights. It will also enable you to see what worked and what needs improvement in your company’s utilization of a virtual platform.

Final Thoughts on the New World of Virtual Medical Conferences

Understanding the key differences between live and virtual medical conferences is critical since most large gatherings are expected to be virtual not only for 2020, but well into 2021. Properly navigating virtual conferences can result in significant value for a company if the data that your team has been collecting and analyzing for months, or even years, is optimally shared in this new, all-virtual environment.