During the September 22 general session of Pharma Forum held at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, Adele Dittrich, director of HCP engagement operations for Alexion Pharmaceuticals, threw more than a dozen questions at two veteran HCPs about their continuing medical education and interacting with colleagues and industry reps at meetings. Their answers brought useful perspective to the approximately 300 pharma and medical-device event planners in the room.
Appearing on stage with Dittrich was Dr. Sunil Eappen, interim president and chief medical officer for Brigham Health and an anesthesiologist. And joining virtually was Dr. Joshua Stolker, an interventional cardiologist for Mercy Medical Group and an adjunct professor at Saint Louis University in Missouri. In fact, Stolker was wearing his scrubs during the session; he was due in the catheterization lab as soon as the 50-minute discussion ended.
Titled “HCP Expectations for Future Medical Meetings,” the session helped Pharma Forum’s attendees understand how HCPs prefer to earn CME credit and learn about pharmaceutical and medical-device products.
Adele Dittrich: These days, how do you carve out the time to learn about the latest advancements in your field?
Sunil Eappen: I have had very little time to learn in 2021<;> that’s how crazy the medical environment has been. Either I hear interesting things from colleagues from events they have participated in or from something they read that they want to share with the team. All I’ve been doing lately is reading articles in medical journals before bed, both in my specialty and more general areas.
Joshua Stolker: I am 100 percent clinical, so learning during the day is mostly out of the question. Before the day starts or after it ends is more likely; whenever my mind is well-rested enough to absorb information, I read.
Dittrich: After 18 months of mostly virtual events, has that sharpened your thoughts on why you attend in-person meetings? Is it CME, or networking, or a chance to get away from the day-to-day schedule?
Eappen: I do look at the cities where conferences are going to be held, and my wife enjoys the travel as well. But the biggest part is to keep up with what is happening in the world, because I feel like I fall behind quickly when I am in my working routine. It is tough to carve out time but we need those CME credits, so you have to make room in your plans for it.
Stolker (pictured): I did 15 years in academic medical centers but have been in private practice for about eight years now, so there are no grand rounds for me to be part of anymore. We don’t get an hour a day or maybe even an hour a week of fellow or residency meetings. Going to a conference is not only required for CME but it is also a great escape. To have a full day to be away from the work setting and change my mindset, I really look forward to that.
I am amenable to virtual sessions, but we all know it is just not the same atmosphere. Having recorded CME options I can watch at home or in my office during hours when it’s quiet is certainly good, but being able to have a whole day to myself to listen to and ask questions of colleagues trumps all else.
Dittrich: Do you prefer in-person or virtual ad boards?
Stolker: Well, the pauses and delays and one-screen-at-a-time virtual experience makes it far less appealing than the in-person experience. Overall, the medical field has figured out how to make do with virtual, but the impact is stronger in person. Thank goodness this pandemic happened when we have the technology to make do temporarily—can you imagine if the pandemic happened in 2005 without today’s videoconferencing technology? But the debate and discussion that happens during events is never quite the same virtually, and that reinforces the fact that in person is superior.
Dittrich: Do you think vaccine mandates for in-person events are the right thing, or are a combination of other protocols sufficient?
Eappen (pictured): It depends on where a region is in its [Covid-case and -vaccination] situation. Here in Boston, I feel good with both numbers right now, and I feel very safe at this event [with its vaccine mandate]. But in different states, there are different situations. Having the numbers for new cases and vaccination rates is really helpful to know in order to feel safe.
Stolker: Being in a room of vaccinated people makes me feel much more comfortable than being in a room with a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Given that we’re seeing such a huge disparity in hospitalization rates of vaccinated versus unvaccinated people, being in a room with vaccinated people and keeping some distance makes me feel safe. But I live in Missouri; I’m more comfortable with traveling to some other states than I am with going to the southwest part of our state at this moment. And I do have colleagues who would rather do the virtual option whenever possible.
Dittrich: Are your institutions still limiting travel?
Eappen: We were very restrictive until recently—even for visiting family out of town you needed written permission. But we have let business travel open up more because we have people vaccinated and there’s easy access to testing.
Stolker: We didn’t have many restrictions in our region, and that was a bit scary if you didn’t know if one of your colleagues just came back from Disney World or something.
Dittrich: We are at this conference to try to create educational solutions that work for HCPs. So, are there any ways you have been able to digest information during the pandemic that we planners can carry into the future?
Eappen: Personally, I have been open to any channel as long as the information is from a reputable source. It’s great to be in person. But with video, a live session feels better to me than a recorded one because of the possibilities for interaction.
Stolker: I am kind of a naysayer about real-time virtual. It’s gotten better over time, but the event host doesn’t know if I’m really engaged or if my nurse practitioner is standing over my shoulder saying, “You have two minutes before you go into the procedure.” Virtual is just not the same as being able to see if people are bored or confused and then switch gears on the discussion. If a virtual meeting has maybe 25 people and they are able to raise their hands and talk, that’s very good. But otherwise, record your virtual sessions it so I can watch it when I don’t have anyone over my shoulder.
Dittrich: What can planners do to minimize distractions for you at meetings?
Eappen: Having time set aside during the meeting to get out and handle business back home and have a quick bite—and keeping things on schedule—allows me to be more present in the sessions.
Dittrich: How can pharma companies help you through their events and interactions?
Stolker: In private practice, learning must be self-motivated; you focus on volume and there is not the same focus on research and the piecemeal learning opportunities as in an academic center. Can pharma do anything about this? Maybe. I find it a nice break to talk with a rep who comes by the office or the catheterization lab. However, it becomes an annoyance if the rep is not bringing me the newest data or telling me something I don’t know. It is more useful if it is a scheduled time for 30 minutes to talk with a medical-science liaison or a regional medical director who wants to discuss to how to better implement their product in my area of practice.
Eappen: When pharma provides education, it is generally very well received. The challenge we’ve had is the perception that we are being unduly influenced by a company, and we have become very sensitive and cautious about that. The community has to believe that I am doing what is best for them, not what is best for me. That said, I do appreciate that at Brigham we have many interactions where our doctors are contributing to the products that are helping our patients.
One thing I’d say to pharma: Incremental innovation is not as impressive to HCPs as transformational innovation. How do we make decisions on how much a month of additional life is worth? Those are so hard.
Dittrich: Have you experienced any event formats that have been effective for you that should continue after the pandemic?
Eappen: The recent chief medical officers annual meeting I just attended had a good format. It is sponsored by vendors—the guest rooms and meals are covered. But there is a completely separate educational track, and between those sessions are one-on-one meetings with vendors, not just pharma but also device manufacturers and software and staffing companies. We commit to talk to a certain number of them. It is almost like speed dating to see if there is a meaningful connection there. I found the format very useful; I learned a lot in a short time that I could bring back.
Stolker: I love that idea. I went to the New Cardiovascular Horizons meeting recently, which was sponsored by pharma, but they were not in the room. On our breaks we had time to spend with industry people who had new-product demos and new data to share. I have also been to lunches that had a purely educational topic, but the sponsors had a bit of time afterwards to speak with us individually.
Dittrich: Do exhibit-hall experiences work for you?
Stolker: They are good for me for brief intervals. Between sessions I want to eat something and chat with fellow practitioners. Appointment sign-ups are better than just wandering the show floor and having to make decisions on the spot about who to speak with.
Eappen: I also like pre-scheduled appointments. It takes the awkwardness out of walking through the show floor.
HCPs Dish on Their Meeting Likes and Dislikes