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Go with the flow – a new concept for medical congresses?

The traditional medical conference model is under siege by COVID-19. Congress organisers worldwide have either cancelled or postponed their events, or are holding out hope that they can host them as originally planned. Another group has opted for virtual alternatives, offering symposia, workshops and presentations online and infection free. An obvious approach, given that many of the would-be attendees now conduct their daily clinics virtually.

Current situation

The technology to host and visit symposia, booths and workshops online is already here. Nevertheless, many HCPs balk at the suggestion that they should give up hours in crowded airport lounges, taxi queues and traffic jams for a walk from the kitchen table to the computer in their own home. They fear that virtual conferencing may impede networking and collaboration; that the human dimension will be lost when post-symposium discussions happen in a chat forum instead of over drinks at the bar.

At the same time, scientific exchange has moved on. Virtual advisory boards, online expert sessions and online sales calls are being conducted day by day, signalling that the demise of the on-site model is already well under way. The necessity to improvise due to the crisis will help us reshape a model that has relied on hierarchical structures, one-way communication and rigid timetables to disseminate new data and best clinical practice. However, we cannot transport current conference formats into online meetings without adapting them. Once actual space is no longer a determining factor, some of the ruling necessities will disappear.

New model

Access will become a lot easier. Without having to pay for travel, hotels and food in addition to the registration fee, many more (and younger) physicians will be able to attend from anywhere in the world. Particularly as the cost for hosting an event will decrease – no need to invest in hiring a conference venue. Travel will no longer sap energy and prevent HCPs from having to miss regular clinics. When virtual events can offer live streams as well as on-demand recordings, sessions can be attended whenever it is convenient, and you won’t have to choose which parallel session to visit. From there, it is only a small step to rethinking the concept of time.

Attending a physical conference provides attendees with a high volume of very dense input over a relatively short period of time. Once the conference is over, attendees go their separate ways, mostly with their next meeting in mind. Potentially valuable questions and ideas occur to us much later. But what if the conference was left ‘open’, digitally, for a period afterwards? If an associated digital forum for members extended beyond the familiar three to five-day conference period, experts would be able to exchange follow-up questions and ideas in a more free-flowing way – which could be highly productive and lead to output beyond the initial (perhaps limited) aims. This could even extend to a pre-conference forum, to allow a feed into the desired aims and topics that may allow better streamlining of the conference. Giving the attendees the option to join at their convenience rather than at a specific time may be invaluable. Missing a nine to five day at the clinic could be avoided, and ideas that pop up at random (and outside office hours) could be shared swiftly, without the need for immediate response by all parties. This free-flow system would, of course, require structure and curation.

Existing best practice

An industry that is very successfully working with the state of ‘flow’ is the gaming industry, worth over $150bn. Its audience-centric approach provides valuable learnings for the virtual medical conference because it accommodates different learner types. Relying on user interfaces that are easy to navigate, they take care not to make their events overly sophisticated by using too many applications and to alternate sessions and methods to create an emotional experience. Their aim is for their audience to become completely absorbed. This helps attendees feel more energetic and engaged, and as a result they learn more and are more inclined to share knowledge.

The big question is whether the medical community is ready for a user-centric approach, giving up its highly hierarchical structures and allowing an essentially democratic model. I can imagine a gradual move from on-site via hybrid to online conferencing where some specialties are happier to test and adopt than others. Ultimately, we all stand to gain, as one of the side effects of this new scientific exchange is a significantly reduced carbon footprint!

Christian Guhlke is Managing Partner and Director Digital at infill healthcare communication

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