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Hybrid events with small in-person audiences and a virtual audience might be a first step towards resuming in-person meetings.

Virtual Still Rules Medical Meetings—for Now

A panel of pharma planners recently discussed their firms’ in-person possibilities, virtual/hybrid strategies, and compliance considerations for the near future.

On February 12, Meeting Professionals International held the first of four webinars it will conduct in 2021 focused on the issues affecting medical and pharmaceutical planners during a most uncertain time. With the Covid-19 pandemic approaching the one-year mark but also promising news coming out regarding daily infection numbers and more people getting vaccinated, each company and association in the healthcare field has its own view on how it should conduct events in 2021.

Michael Mahoney, HMCC, senior director of strategic event services for Genentech, detailed his firm’s evolving approach to meetings. “We chose early on in the pandemic to stand down on in-person events until at least mid-2021 because we did not want to keep facing artificial deadlines and doing unnecessary work. It turns out we were right about the timeline. So, in April we will make a decision on the format for our events in the second half of 2021. Right now, we are not contracting or sourcing for any in-person events; we are watching case numbers and vaccination numbers. But our planners who are patient-facing would like to get vaccinated as soon as possible and do their work.”

A few days after the webinar, The Wall Street Journal reported one potential complication for a return to in-person events involving European attendees: A slower vaccination rate among HCPs in Europe than what was expected. According to the February 18 article in WSJ, thousands of HCPs across Europe do not want to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine, many doses of which were set aside specifically for HCPs, due to its lower efficacy than other vaccines as well as colleagues’ reports of unpleasant side effects for days afterward.

With such uncertainty, virtual meetings will remain the dominant means for healthcare companies to hold events for the next several months, perhaps with a hybrid component featuring small in-person audiences in one or more locations. 

Interestingly, one element of medical events that is always on planners’ minds but which has not seen big changes in the virtual and hybrid environment is regulation and code compliance. “In the U.S. there are no changes or specific edits to Open Payments that are a result of Covid-19. Every transparency requirement remains, so there are no new codes,” said Pat Schaumann, CMP, CESP, HMCC, consultant for life sciences development at McVeigh Global Meetings & Events and moderator of the webinar. “Reporting stays the same for face-to-face, virtual, and hybrid meetings.” 

Nonetheless, the industry groups IPCAA, IFPMA, and PhRMA have put together recommended best practices for virtual and hybrid meetings to cover issues specific to the digital medium. A few things that their revised guidelines suggest: 

Require opt-in from presenters and attendees: a signature or other proof to verify that the participant knows what content-delivery and recording format is being used for the event.
Be transparent about what the organization will do with the content from the meeting: recording, archiving, sharing on login-protected channels or public channels, and other actions.

As for the execution of digitally oriented events, Schaumann noted that “while virtual has brought lots of savings to meeting hosts, hybrid can be complicated and expensive." 

To find the best platform for a specific virtual or hybrid event, Taya Paige, CMM, HMCC, strategic advisor for ITA Group, advised that planners “ask their production partner and registration company for platform recommendations. Then, attend an event on each recommended platform to see which one best meets their needs—HCP events and sales meetings have very different needs, and that could mean using different platforms for each. Make sure to ‘plan above the platform,’ or strategize internally across teams and with your production and registration partners to see if a given platform works for that event.”

Paige added that “some tech providers are so busy right now that you need to also pay attention to the customer-service aspect of your interactions and get other planner references before you commit. In short, evaluate features and service first, and price last.”

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