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Article: Has the reality of virtual conferences lived up to their promise?

Harrison Gaiger, August 2020

Has the reality of virtual conferences lived up to their promiseUsing findings from a recent poll conducted among Oncologists, Harrison Gaiger explores what they really thought of ASCO 2020 and discusses the changing nature of medical conferences.

In March, much of the world went in to lockdown and the prospect of medical conferences running as normal became unimaginable. Seeing no alternative, many organisers who would have spent months meticulously planning their upcoming events made the difficult decision to cancel. The more optimistic among them opted to postpone until 2021, while some deferred indefinitely. However, among the flurry of cancellations and postponements, some professional bodies and event organisers saw an opportunity to go a different route. As the old saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention”.  While virtual conferences have been around for many years now, annual scientific events provide one of the greatest means to engage a wide range of healthcare stakeholders and so large-scale week-long events continued to dominate many of our calendars. But with the global pandemic came concerns about how the healthcare community could continue to safely congregate en masse. There had never been a more opportune moment to really put virtual conferencing to the test. So the industry decided to make lemonade out of lemons and invitations to virtual conferences became the order of the day.

In response to this surge of online events, back in April we conducted a poll among several hundred practising medical specialists in the US and across Europe to find out their thoughts on virtual conferences. Among the physicians we polled, 75% were planning to attend medical events that had been (or threatened to be) disrupted by the coronavirus. Of those, 84% were keen to explore the option of attending a medical congress in a ‘virtual’ format (as an alternative to attending in person). If making use of a ‘remote’ or ‘virtual’ conference format, 68% would just dip in to papers and presentations of interest; the remainder would undertake to review a broader range of presentations. If engaging with a ‘virtual’ conference, only 22% stated that they would seek to access a key presentation ‘live’, with 50% more likely to take it in at a later date, whenever they had time (the remaining 29% stated that ‘either way is fine, it makes no difference’). Finally, in response to the key question ‘Do you think the virtual format is the future of medical conference?’ 64% said ‘Yes’ and 36% said ‘No’.

The promise
The results of our poll looked promising and showed a clear willingness – even a preference – for busy physicians to engage with a virtual conference. The benefits of attending conferences virtually rather than in-person seem fairly obvious. In theory. For delegates, it’s much more cost-effective to simply pay any registration fees and attend the sessions online rather than fork out for costly travel and accommodation, food, entertainment, and any other work-related expenses. Virtual conferences offer delegates greater flexibility by allowing them to attend from home, the office, or anywhere with a decent Wi-Fi connection. Attendees also benefit from being able to replay recordings of the broadcast sessions in their own time and stream presentations they might have otherwise missed because of overlapping slots in the conference programme. Finally, the online environment allows attendees to connect with colleagues, speakers, exhibitors and any other delegates much more simply. No more waiting in long queues at the coffee stand in a packed out networking area!

The reality
It’s now August and some of the worlds’ largest medical events have taken place in a virtual or some sort of hybrid setting. One such event was ASCO 2020 which ran as a three-day virtual scientific meeting from Friday 29th - Sunday 31st May, with materials available to access on-demand long after the event had finished. It’s reported over 42,700 attendees from 138 countries participated in the event which included over 5,300 abstracts, 2,300 oral and poster presentations and more than 100 broadcast sessions. Being the curious minds that we are, we wanted to find out if the reality of virtual conferences had lived up to the promise by asking Oncologists across the US and Europe about their thoughts on the event. Here’s what we found:

  • Turnout: The virtual conference format attracted a broad group of Oncologists from across the US and EU, including those that hadn’t even planned to attend the event in person before the pandemic struck. Of the physicians we asked, just 61% were planning to attend what would have been a five-day event in Chicago, Illinois. However, over 75% of respondents had since engaged with or intended to engage with online content presented as part of the virtual conference.
  • Content: Although a third of respondents had viewed a large amount of content, similar to what they would have viewed had they attended the congress in person, almost 40% said it may have been less than what they would have viewed had the event gone ahead in its original format.
  • Engagement: Knowing from our poll in April that physicians are more likely to engage with virtual conference material in their own time rather than watch live presentations, we ran the survey several months after the event finished. We found that after two months of conference material being made available online, the majority of physicians had viewed as much as they were going to view. 65% of respondents reported they had accessed and viewed most if not all of the content they planned to see.
  • Disadvantages: As mentioned, running conferences virtually has its advantages. But what did the Oncologists think were the biggest downsides of accessing ASCO 2020 remotely rather than attending in person? Many felt the lack of networking opportunities was one of the key disadvantages in attending virtually. In addition, several mentioned the lack of interaction and opportunities for live discussion with speakers and presenters as being the largest disadvantages.  On the plus side, at least quarter felt there were no issues at all.

What does the future hold?
The results give us some indication as to what physicians think about virtual conferences in the here and now. But what do they really tell us about the changing nature of medical conferences? Is virtual the ‘new normal’ or are we all racing to get back in the convention hall? Many months have now passed since the initial coronavirus crisis and rather than virtual conference events being seen as a temporary measure, they are being celebrated for their inherent benefits. Although there may still be some issues that need ironing out such as peer-to-peer networking and interactivity, just look at what has been achieved in such a small amount of time.

One thing is for sure, whether held virtually or in a packed-out hotel, participation in medical congress remains vital for pharmaceutical companies and while they may save on travel and shipping costs, events such as these still represent a considerable amount of investment in terms of time and resources. As we go forward in to what looks set to be another global recession, it is crucial that pharmaceutical companies evaluate the success of marketing activity. Contact us today to request the full findings from our poll and find out how we can help you understand the reach and impact of your company’s communications in a virtual conference setting with Virtual Conference Live.

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