Unlocking virtual medical congresses


Clinical trials themselves aren’t the only critical piece of the data puzzle that has been affected by COVID-19.

Medical congresses – crucial for the presentation of trial data, scientific exchange and the opportunity to engage with medical professionals, patient advocates, media and analysts – have been cancelled, postponed or are moving to virtual/part virtual. Therefore, even when trial results haven’t been impacted by delayed or cancelled clinical trials, in this new virtual era, companies still need to be assessing how best to present the data that they do have available.

Our analysis

To gain some insights on how communications at and around these calendar cornerstones need to change, we analyzed the published plans of 26 internationally recognized medical congresses across eight disease areas, including several meetings already held, across the period of March to September. The results from this research are summarized in this infographic. Although 31% of congresses have been cancelled or postponed at the time of analysis (April 2020), the majority (54% or 14 congresses) are moving or looking to move to a virtual format. Our core conclusions are:

  • Plans are still fluid. Most congresses are still working out their plans, with more than half still confirming how they will be conducting oral and poster presentations, educational sessions, workshops and symposia
  • No two congresses are taking the same approach to their virtual format. Despite their stated efforts to keep a traditional structure for their meeting, each congress is adapting its format and content in different ways, such as a live virtual summit (European Renal Association – European Dialysis and Transplant Association [ERA-EDTA]), a virtual portal or microsite (European Association of Urology [EAU]), or a virtual meeting platform that is part live and part pre-recorded (American Society of Clinical Oncology [ASCO])
  • Content is being condensed. In many cases, there are a limited number of oral or poster presentations and more data is being published just online
  • Information on media participation and engagement is generally not available. Interestingly, all congresses with virtual plans have yet to publicly address how they will support media coverage of the congress, i.e. whether through virtual press briefings or online dedicated press information. Even when we contacted the press offices for a number of these congresses, plans for many were not yet available

A recent impressive example of engagement with virtual congresses can be seen in the key metrics from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) 2020 meeting held in April:

  • 61,000+ registrants from 140 countries
  • Viewers for the top three live sessions:
    • Opening Clinical Plenary – 28,674 live views
    • Adoptive Cell Therapy – 26,118 live views
    • Immunotherapy Clinical Trials 1 – 21,210 live views
    • 35M impressions and 7,000 tweets from more than 2,000 participants

In addition, to supplement our understanding for the implications of virtual congresses, we spoke to 14 journalists across pharmaceutical trade, medical and top-tier media outlets. While their plans – as with congresses – are still fluid and variable based on the congress, what is clear is that congresses will still be a key news driver for their health-related coverage and that they are looking for content beyond the pandemic. It’s important for communicators to recognize that the media remains keen for important medical innovation—and human interest—stories that go beyond COVID-19.

The keys to success

Our recommendations as you re-evaluate your congress plans:

  • Scenario plan. Congresses plans are frequently evolving, with new information about their virtual plans becoming available all the time, as they seek to adapt to how the world is reacting to the pandemic. It is essential that companies remain fluid and scenario plan around their communications
  • Simplify, prioritize and integrate your communications. Going virtual will, in many ways, make it even harder to distill the key highlights from a medical congress. Therefore, it is even more critical to ensure that every point and opportunity to communicate tells a company’s congress story in a succinct way
  • Consider ways to extend the reach of (or contexualize) the communications. It’s always been important to find creative ways to reach audiences beyond those who attend a meeting. In a virtual setting, more people may actually be able to attend, but there may be less interactivity around the presentations (at least until people become more comfortable with virtual settings), and therefore follow-up activities become even more critical.

From a tactical perspective, it will be important to be able to quickly pivot on approaches to communicating data, and many companies are becoming much more agile than before the pandemic. For example, many companies are embracing digital approaches across their activities, and we have worked with them in developing interactive digital materials, hosting virtual events and meetings around congresses, or upping their efforts on their digital content (web- and social-based).

This will remain a continuously evolving situation, but one thing is clear: like so many other aspects of how we do business in a post-pandemic world, some of the traditional strategies for optimizing data communication and congress presence will return while others will be changed forever.

Are you interested in more information about our congress analysis, media interviews or any of the strategies and tactics mentioned above (or your own unique situation)? Please contact us.

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We know there are numerous considerations when it comes to the impact of COVID-19 and what this means for your organization. We are here to help.