Are face-to-face medical meetings a thing of the past?

Everything, from exercise classes to pub quizzes, went online last year – and medical education was no exception. In their droves, congresses, conferences, and masterclasses went virtual in a bid to ensure healthcare professionals were supported, up to date, and socially distanced.

But is this change here to stay? Are the days of queuing for coffee, rushing to symposiums, and the glitzy conference dinner a thing of the past? We asked those in the know.

International reach

Online learning makes medical education more accessible but presents challenges in terms of networking opportunities and sponsor exposure.

That is according to Jamie McGregor, head of policy, intelligence and operations at the Neurology Academy, which provides education programmes and masterclasses across a range of neurological specialisms.

“We have gone worldwide,” he says. “We have had people from Indonesia, West Africa – places where people usually find it very hard to access medical education. A recent international masterclass in MS had 53 delegates from 11 countries.”

Geography is not the only accessibility consideration, as healthcare professionals have less time than ever. For most, study leave is a distant memory, and many are juggling long working hours with childcare and other family commitments.

“People can dip in and out of online content, rather than block three days out of their calendar to attend a course. They also avoid all the travel time and the expense.

“But in terms of disadvantages, we are always at the mercy of the IT gods, and from a delivery standpoint, there’s a lot more to organise. You’ve got potentially hundreds of people you need to make sure can log on and take part.”

Online can also be more difficult for speakers because they are unable to gauge their audience’s reaction, and the loss of networking opportunities has also been noted.

“We have really tried to drive engagement and give delegates the opportunity to get involved – we have had question and answer functions, Twitter feeds and dedicated inboxes. For the smaller events, we have set up WhatsApp groups so they can talk amongst themselves,” says McGregor.

“We want to try to make them feel as though they are in the room.”

Sponsor engagement was also a concern for the academy, and McGregor admits this is something they are still working on.

“We want to give sponsors as much exposure as possible, and make sure delegates understand that without the sponsorship, the events either would not be happening at all, or would certainly not be free.

“So far, we have tried virtual networking cafes, where pharma reps can sit and chat to people, and we are doing online sponsored symposiums. There is more that we want to do, and we will work with our sponsors on that, but it’s definitely a learning curve.”

Re-creating face-to-face

The pivot from “in real life” to virtual wasn’t an easy one for the team at the British Society of Echocardiography, but they were determined that the “vital educational event” would go ahead.

“A virtual conference is a completely different beast to a face-to-face event – the project plan needs turning on its head,” says Jo Sopala, executive director at the society, adding that she was “immensely grateful” to work with a trusted platform supplier who could provide expertise and support.

“I think digital will always have a part to play. I suspect for the next year we will remain predominantly virtual, but once we can socialise again, there will be a call for face-to-face events. People, and particularly the medical fraternity, will need the personal connection”

“There was a huge amount of work to do. We had a full programme and had already invited speakers. To facilitate a virtual event, we had to go right back to the drawing board: revising the programme, the structure and pretty much everything.”

The hard work paid off, and the virtual conference was deemed a success with a 50% increase in audience and wider international reach when compared to the previous year.

“We received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the content, platform, engagement and accessibility, and were very proud of the result,” Sopala says.

They worked hard to recreate the social element of conference, opting for a platform with inbuilt networking abilities and even throwing a virtual “conference disco”.

“You cannot underestimate the value of networking and informal clinical supervision/support that people get at conferences – something which is probably needed now more than ever,” Sopala says, adding that this had been difficult to recreate in the digital setting.

“The other slight downside was that our sponsors did not receive the level of engagement they would usually expect, but we will work with them and providers to improve on that.”

Asked if virtual medical meetings were the future, Sopala says she envisions a hybrid model, post-2021.

“I think digital will always have a part to play. I suspect for the next year we will remain predominantly virtual, but once we can socialise again, there will be a call for face-to-face events.

“People, and particularly the medical fraternity, will need the personal connection,” she says.

Industry adaptations

While educational content lends itself to the virtual model, translating sponsor exposure into the online space has posed something of a challenge.

Fiona Robinson, director of exhibition design company Discovery Events, says: “We have looked into various virtual platforms for clients for exhibition stands, including virtual tours, downloaded videos, brochures and information.

“But it is a really different way of disseminating information.”

Many clients have diverted spend from conferences to online content generation and are “taking the opportunity to profile themselves in different ways”.

“Websites are playing an even more important role than ever before, certainly as a sales tool. It is every company’s shop window to the world, and promoting expertise has never been more critical,” says Robinson.

The pandemic-driven shift to digital communications has demonstrated it is possible to maintain contacts while working from home, and people have adapted quickly. But, Robinson says, that will not spell the end of face-to-face conferences in the future.

“What I’m continually hearing is that people are sick of Zoom meetings and that it’s just not the same as in-person comms,” she says.

“Many a deal has been made in a bar after congress and this kind of social interaction plays a huge part of the business world. People like a good conference giveaway, and even the most seasoned travellers do still get a buzz from visiting a foreign country.

“Can we really imagine a world without face-to-face congresses? Without that personal networking touch? I, for one, hope they will not be lost to a virtual world.”

About the author

Amanda Barrell is a health and medical education journalist, editor and copywriter. She has worked on projects for pharma, charities and agencies, and has written extensively for patients, healthcare professionals and the general public.