The new reality of medical conferences shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic requires a new language and 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 from a webcast held earlier this week featuring Len Starnes, a Berlin-based digital health care 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 major medical conferences were in-person only in 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 allows 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 now 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.”
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 in the webcast. 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. The preference for in-person meetings was 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 in some cases restricts physicians from reporting data from new drug trials to audiences including 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 fee, and patients benefitted from this. But with medical societies facing the necessity of having to charge often hefty registration fees, 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 many patients who should be in the room at a conference to present their unique perspective may have neither the time nor 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 showing how this new future for medical conferences should look.
Pat Rich is a digital writer and can be reached on Days of Past Futures and on Twitter @pat_health.
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