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2021 HCP Events: BMS’s Prognosis and Treatment

Planning veteran Jeffrey Cesari discusses Bristol Myers Squibb’s approach to congresses this year, the linked future of HCP events and internal sales meetings, and the conversations he wants to have at March’s Pharma Forum.

While it’s been a tough 12 months now for those who work on medical and pharma meetings and exhibits, Jeffrey Cesari, CMP, HMCC, has had even less time to sleep than many other planners. After going through the merger of BMS and Celgene in early 2020, he’s now helping to acclimate another wave of new colleagues to the BMS way thanks to the firm’s recent $13 billion purchase of MyoKardia. At the same time, he’s had to adapt his firm’s approach to educating healthcare professionals to the virtual medium.

MM0221Cesari.pngCesari, congress business partner, global HCP and worldwide commercialization for BMS, handles the international congress presence for the firm’s cardiovascular and oncology disciplines. He’s also one of three chairs of Pharma Forum 2021which takes place virtually from March 22 to 24. In mid-February, Cesari spoke to MeetingsNet about the perspective within BMS on getting back to in-person gatherings, permanent changes to medical events once the Covid-19 pandemic ends, and pressing topics he wants to discuss with colleagues from other companies during Pharma Forum.

MeetingsNet: What’s BMS’s position on resuming participation in face-to-face events?
Cesari: Right now, we have no specific guidance from our leadership, but I suspect that we are going to participate in meetings virtually for the majority of 2021. The thinking is that we simply cannot ask our key opinion leaders to assume any physical risk. There is going to be hesitation on everyone’s part, so we are not pushing our thought leaders or our employees into situations where they would be uncomfortable. For Q3 and Q4 we are taking a dual approach: planning for events to be in person but with the contingency that we will go hybrid or fully virtual if the physical environment isn’t clearly safe by a certain point.

MeetingsNet: Is that as much work as it sounds like?
Cesari: Oh yes. We have about 200 people on the team who are located around the world, and there’s our external partners too. My calendar is back-to-back video meetings all day, with people in Europe in the early morning and people in North America after that. There’s not as much time to do the actual planning tasks for the 28 congresses I’m involved with. But I’m sure many people reading this are feeling the same way.

After a year of this now, we are figuring out ways to cope. Because we rely so much on technology our IT team has put a lot of resources into place so we can get things done. Patients are waiting for medicines and we have to be able to keep educating HCPs, which requires us to collaborate internally and with key opinion leaders and vendors externally.

MeetingsNet: With a good amount of virtual-meeting experience now under everyone’s belts, what changes do you anticipate will stick around regarding the way meetings are executed once the pandemic ends?
Cesari: Recent studies show that doctors like the opportunity to participate in a meeting but not lose any days to travel. So the virtual element is going to remain for most in-person events. We are able to condense what is, in person, an eight-hour daily agenda into about five hours—it just takes discipline on the part of presenters but also the HCPs to stay focused in whatever environment they are participating from. With the latest Ashfield survey
 finding that 60 percent of HCPs view virtual-event content in the evening, we know that they’re able to see patients during the day and still take in the content. We must always adapt to what our audience wants.

MeetingsNet: What about peer-to-peer interaction? That’s an important reason why HCPs attend in-person events.
Cesari: For the virtual audience, you really have to rely on the chat forums and constantly encourage dialogue and perhaps facilitate Zoom meet-ups. Otherwise, HCPs will miss out on that benefit. 

MeetingsNet: There’s also the poster sessions and exhibits for HCPs to take in. How well does that work in the virtual realm?
Cesari: Well, the Ashfield study found that 94 percent of HCPs attended virtual presentations and symposia but only 32 percent visited a virtual exhibit booth. That tells me that HCPs want to hear from the people delivering the da
ta, but they don’t necessarily need to see our products on the virtual platform because they either know about them already or they have a good relationship with our field-sales reps who engage them.

MeetingsNet: If HCPs don’t engage sufficiently with virtual exhibits, does this mean that field-sales training events will become more important to pharma and medical-device companies.
Cesari: I would think so. Doctors still need people to go to for the latest data and the resulting updates to our products, so it is very important that reps go out day to day and get meetings with HCPs in their offices. And field-sales reps will still be involved in congresses, but they might have a different role going forward. 

One thing we are testing: Because we’ve found that HCPs want to hear about new data in short bits, maybe for 20 minutes, rather than go to an exhibit booth, we are looking more into investing in symposia and product theaters at congresses. 

MM0221pharmaforumpromo.pngMeetingsNet: As a chair for this year’s Pharma Forum, what do you think fellow planners will get from the event that would most benefit them in this unusual business environment?
Cesari: The conference will be an opportunity to have honest conversations and share best practices as we navigate the virtual and hybrid world. I also think Pharma Forum will allow us to share our personal coping mechanisms for the stress we feel. I hear those things from people on my own team, and I’d recommend that the leaders at every pharmaceutical company show empathy and compassion and provide flexibility for people to work however is best for them to get the job done. I hope planners will come in with an open mind and take in some really different perspectives. 

I think there will be a lot of laughs too, about things like when a person in pajamas walks into the background of a virtual meeting. Hearing other people’s stories about the present environment will help attendees go back to work with a positive attitude.

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