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Nate Wible and Dan Donovan evaluate the shift from in-person to virtual HCP meetings and look toward the future of this model.
As a medical communications agency, we attend, facilitate, and cover over 100 local, regional, national, and international congresses, symposia, programs, and other in-person scientific and advisory meetings in a typical year. The global pandemic immediately cut off face-to-face interactions with healthcare professionals (HCPs), with whom we must stay engaged. Quickly pivoting our capabilities to include more virtual and digital offerings required us to address many challenges and uncertainties. The idea of virtual meetings is not novel, but suddenly transitioning to such events in various stages of planning and execution required a strategic approach to maintain strong HCP connections, while delivering on expectations and programs. The transition process was not perfected overnight. In instances, it was necessary to reduce the focus of virtual meetings (i.e., cover less ground and/or achieve a smaller number of goals) due to factors, including virtual meeting fatigue, multi-tasking, technology neophytes, and clinical demands (many HCPs remain involved in COVID-19 care and treatment). Another challenge with virtual meetings is the lack of the in-person community and bonding many HCPs experience during such gatherings. Gone are the ad-hoc, “one-on-one run-ins” and hallway talks that happen when colleagues line up at poster sessions or other scientific talks. While we continue to work to provide value, here’s what we learned as we pivot to virtual and digital offerings.
• Keep virtual events short. Recognize that sacrifices will be necessary. Consolidating a full-day agenda into a two- to three-hour virtual meeting forces you to prioritize; key topics bubble to the surface. The process can also take longer when you factor in global clients and HCPs (e.g., time zones and demands on their time). Consider transitioning a full-day live event into a series of two- to three-hour virtual meetings instead of a full-day virtual event is a requirement.
• Know your HCPs; set the right tone and expectations early on. We found some HCPs more likely to be engaged in real-time, while others provided more insight when given the opportunity to process data and information offline, and then reconvene at a later date. It is important to set realistic expectations early on and lay a foundation with HCPs prior to meetings. This includes how and when to communicate, engage, provide feedback – even dealing with honoraria.
HCPs shared mixed thoughts on the benefits and drawbacks virtual events offer over live ones. While many had positive experiences with virtual events, others experience screen fatigue, like the rest of us. These virtual events are often occurring late in the evening, after many HCPs have already logged a full day of virtual patient consults. They want to unwind and get away from their screens, too.
• Think about new ways to achieve your goals. When transitioning a full-day live advisory board to virtual, as an example, consider a pre-meeting survey to gather feedback, followed by a focused virtual advisory board, which is capped off by an offline, iterative feedback session to dig deeper into insights. More can be accomplished in smaller virtual groups.
• Choose the proper moderator for any virtual event. Prepping this person appropriately is critical to communicate clear objectives and create proper guidelines for a specific approach. It also can offer ways to them help HCPs adjust in the moment, if necessary. Even acknowledging that HCPs may need additional time away from a virtual event to review information in order to make meaningful contributions can be effective.
• Stay away from the shiny “bells and whistles” of virtual platforms. They get in the way of meaningful conversations. Focus on ensuring meaningful discussions.
• Institute Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI). Asking what worked and what can be improved allowed us to make offerings that benefitted the HCP experience.
One client asked whether things would ever get back to “normal.” Our position is that the pendulum won’t swing all the way back, but it won’t stay exactly where it has been, either. Working with HCPs, integrated digital services will become a norm and have a role to play in nearly every project. We envision a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous engagement as a way to give HCPs more flexibility, control, and better methods of providing clinical value. If the process is smooth and easy for HCPs, they are more likely to remain engaged.
Nate Wible is EVP, Managing Director of PRECISIONscientia (formerly ETHOS Health Communications). Dan Donovan is Vice President, Creative & Digital, of PRECISIONscientia