For Joan Hablutzel, director of events and interim co-executive director of education at a medical group focused on obesity, the COVID-19 pandemic has created myriad challenges for the meetings and events within the medical community she serves. For example, her Denver, Colorado-based organization recently had to cancel a face-to-face event scheduled for earlier this year. As Hablutzel explains, they knew they had to switch to a virtual option and modify the event accordingly.
“I made a quick decision that we were going to focus only on education for a virtual option, and put less emphasis on other aspects like networking or a virtual trade show,” Hablutzel says. With that decision made, they were able to start researching virtual platform vendors that were simple and more economical. Initially, the group didn’t have a budget for switching to a virtual format, so they had to keep that in mind. “We also sent out a survey to our face-to-face attendees, members and our speakers to determine which days of the week they would prefer to have a virtual conference take place,” Hablutzel says. “To make it easier, we tried to keep our education lineup exactly the same as it was scheduled in the face-to-face event. It was important to keep all of the same sessions and speakers.”
Fortunately, 95% of the speakers were still available to present virtually — either in a pre-recorded session or during the live event. “The biggest challenges have been timing and not knowing what will come up at the event,” Hablutzel says. “Luckily, our virtual platform vendor has been really great to work with, and they’ve been making changes and helping us figure things out as we’ve been going along.”
Justin Hartman, meeting planner and director of Mediasite Events, an event company that orchestrates virtual events, and his team work with medical and pharmaceutical organizations of all sizes around the globe to create engaging virtual education programs for physicians, patients, members and the general public. Sharing information and user engagement is extremely important to the medical community, Hartman says. And data shows higher-than-average content usage, and content typically has a longer shelf life on average, among Mediasite’s medical and pharmaceutical “attendees.” In addition, typically, the medical community participates in and accesses educational events and content outside of traditional business hours, as they are likely working and with patients during the day.
Recently, the Foundation for Research and Education in Dermatology (FRED), an education group serving dermatologists and residents in training to become board-certified, needed to get information out fast around concerns that some drugs used to treat psoriasis may make patients more prone to contracting COVID-19. With just three days notice, FRED turned to Mediasite Events to reach dermatologists with streaming event video so that they receive the timely information they need to treat patients. “In the past, an event like this would have been in person, limiting capacity to roughly 300 to 500 in-person attendees,” Hartman says. “In addition, there were regional limitations which further limited the reach of the critical information to the medical community. Once taken virtually, over 1,800 online attendees were able to participate and receive the breaking medical treatment information for their patients.”
Beyond this virtual meeting experience resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Hablutzel’s group typically has events that are educational meetings for clinicians who are interested in obesity medicine or treating patients with obesity. It is geared for practicing clinicians and heavily oriented toward continuing medical education (CME) content, with networking being a secondary purpose. While planning virtual meetings offers a wealth of challenges to planners, beyond the confines of virtual meetings, some of the unique aspects of planning meetings in the medical field come along the lines of CME requirements. As Hablutzel explains, the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) has some very strict requirements when it comes to how education is developed and carried out, as well as how sponsorships can be integrated. “In a face-to-face event, it’s easy to keep the sponsorships and exhibitors separate from the education. It is more challenging to get the exhibitors and sponsors the value they seek in a virtual environment,” Hablutzel says. “Other industries don’t necessarily have this challenge, and it can make it easier for them to have sponsorships or exhibitors involved in the actual conference itself.”
Caytie Pohlen-LaClare, founder and president at The LaClare Group Inc., has been working with medical device companies for more than 20 years. The types of meetings LaClare’s team typically orchestrates are both internal company meetings and external meetings with their clients in attendance. The internal meetings are typically for company staff and include national sales meetings, regional team meetings and logistics support for companies attending major industry conferences. The external meetings — with attendees who are health care providers — include investigator meetings, health care provider training events and product launch road shows. The LaClare Group has also produced meetings and events in locations throughout the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Europe.
As most people are aware, this industry is highly regulated, especially when meeting attendees are health care providers. “For example, there are limits on meal costs, types of hotels and giveaways — no pens,” Pohlen-LaClare says. “Although most companies have a compliance team, it is vital for planners to know and understand the regulations around meetings and events. It saves everyone time and potential legal trouble if you follow all regulations from the start.”
When considering potential meeting venues, The LaClare Group verifies no competitor companies will be having meetings there at the same time. In fact, they add a clause in each contract to specifically address that issue. “Often, health care provider training events will be held in a hospital or cadaver laboratory, which adds layers of complexity,” Pohlen-LaClare says. “Extra planning is needed for coffee breaks and lunch to either be catered at the facility or held at a nearby restaurant. It also means booking transportation to/from the laboratory and finding nearby hotels for overnight stays.”
For meeting planners moving med/pharma meetings to virtual, Hablutzel recommends they focus on the content first. Identify what type of content they want to deliver and then what type of experience they want attendees to have. “With most medical meetings, content is king, and so you need to maintain the integrity of your content,” Hablutzel says. “Also, don’t be afraid to start small.” That’s one of the reasons her group is only doing education for its first virtual event as they expect to learn a lot from this experience. “For our upcoming conference, we will be doing a hybrid model. We’ll add in networking and a virtual trade show to the virtual component,” Hablutzel says. “About 50% of our sessions are pre-recorded with a live Q&A and the other 50% will be live. This allows us to have some comfort knowing that at least 50% of the content fits within the allotted time slots, won’t have technical glitches and meets our education guidelines. That way, we can focus our time on the parts that will be occurring live.”
One of the challenges planners may experience in the medical industry is scheduling, especially since there is currently a need for medical personnel to help treat COVID-19. This could mean they no longer have as much time for continuing education. On top of that, a lot of attendees may not work a typical Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. That’s why some planners create educational opportunities and host these types of events on the weekend or in the evening.
A few years ago, The LaClare Group planned and operated a 16-city “road show” for a medical client’s product launch. “It was like the movie ‘Groundhog Day’ because we repeated the same two-day training meeting in a new city every week,” Pohlen-LaClare says. For every hotel/meeting venue, The LaClare Group had to verify that no competitors were holding meetings at the same venue and same dates, and verify all meals were in cost-compliance and were sensitive to attendees’ dietary needs. They also had to ensure that all aspects of the meetings were in compliance with public records laws by accurate record keeping of all health care providers in attendance, which day(s) they were there and what meals, if any, they had. They also had to verify their travel — airplane, train, etc. — and make sure that hotel room reservations were in full compliance, so nobody could stay in the host city extra days before or after the meeting.
In addition, the A/V elements had to be flawless in each city and they had to make sure the computer-simulator devices were shipped and arrived on time in each city. “To add an extra level of challenge, the road show occurred a short time after the Sunshine Act was enacted, so many attendees were unfamiliar with the rules and regulations we had to follow,” Pohlen-LaClare says.
To meet the requirements of the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, which passed in 2013 and is part of the Affordable Care Act, medical/pharmaceutical companies must keep accurate records of any type of physician payments and submit reports annually. To maintain this data, it is vital that meeting planners have an accurate recordkeeping system in place. “At each meeting or event, sign-in sheets track who attended and on which day(s),” Pohlen-LaClare says. “We also keep track of what the meeting expenses are on a per-person basis since there are strict cost parameters within the legislation. Most meeting venues, restaurants and caterers are now familiar with these rules and have created special menus that are within compliance guidelines.”
Brooke Davis, vice president at Global Access Meetings and Events, and her team were recently on-site for a medical sales training meeting for a drug that was not yet approved and approval was expected on arrival day. “The company received a Complete Response letter from the FDA — meaning the drug wasn’t approved — and so we had to cancel the meeting on-site, send all attendees home and work with the hotel on minimizing cancelation costs,” Davis says. “Emotions and disappointment were at a high as some attendees were losing their jobs, so it was imperative for us to respond compassionately, provide assistance and be on point with our stakeholders to manage the financial loss of canceling the rest of the meeting.”
Global Access Meetings and Events also holds many health care provider interactions at global congresses as they present an opportunity for exhibiting companies to meet with their key opinion leaders who were already planning to attend the congress. “When organizing a health care provider meeting, we typically will have at least 10 participants attending from different countries, and all have different spend caps. For example, if someone from France was attending a dinner meeting, we are not allowed to spend more than 60 euros on their meal, all taxes/gratuity included,” Davis says. “If we are holding the meeting in Chicago, this dinner cap is very difficult for dinner as it is more typical to spend at least $125-$150/person for dinner. To circumvent this, we prefer to work with venues who have pharma menus on hand where, for a set price, everything is included. In some cases, the physician may opt out from the meal altogether and, therefore, we wouldn’t report any spend against them. This certainly presents many strategic challenges for the planner to stay compliant while accommodating the health care providers in attendance.”
Tips for the Medical/Pharma Meetings Trade
To further streamline medical-based meetings and events, planners should do the following:
• Create robust, standard processes and procedures for the entire planning process. Spending time upfront figuring out your procedures will save time in the long run and help prevent errors.
• Have a full understanding of the Sunshine Act. Whether you are an outside, third-party planner or an internal corporate planner, it is imperative that you understand how your company interprets and enforces the Sunshine Act portion of the Affordable Care Act. The Sunshine Act can be somewhat vague in certain areas — meals must be “modest” — so you need to understand what your client requires.
• Maintain an ongoing process of recordkeeping for each meeting. That way, it doesn’t become an overwhelming task at the end of each year.
• Make sure contracts with meeting venues/hotels include non-compete clauses that specify the meeting planner must be notified if any identified competitors are holding meetings in the same venue. Good contracts should include a force majeure clause that allows for everything from ash clouds over the Atlantic to pandemics that would prevent a meeting from being held.
Davis says meeting planners working with medical and pharmaceutical entities stay up to date on education and the latest guidelines. As the guidelines are constantly changing, it is important for planners to be the resource for clients to provide the latest information, as well as aligning with their internal compliance departments. “For launch programs, work with the hotel to ensure the hotel contract has a tiered/fair cancellation policy and rebooking opportunities in case of the meeting canceling,” Davis says. “It is our job to protect our clients and treat their money as it is our own to minimize the financial exposure and liability as much as possible.”
Meeting experts agree that the industry is going to look different. From combined virtual and face-to-face events, to one hybrid event or pivoting to virtual-only events, medical meeting planners have to consider all options. This also changes every aspect of a conference when face-to-face events resume — from how events will provide food to social distancing standards — adding yet another complexity to event planning. “After all of this is said and done, attendees may be more hesitant to travel and many of us have space and hotel contracts booked out several years based on increasing attendance numbers,” Hablutzel says. “The question becomes —How do we work with our other industry partners to make the new future work for everyone?”
Pohlen-LaClare thinks the impact of COVID-19 on future medical training meetings remains to be seen, however, she anticipates that many health care providers may continue to be restricted from traveling to meetings. Some solutions include smaller training courses for just the staff of a specific hospital/clinic, offering livestream online courses, or a combination of live meetings with some attendees in the room and others attending via livestream. “For corporate meetings with internal staff only, such as an annual sales meeting, we anticipate they will likely have reduced budgets,” Pohlen-LaClare says. “If they occur at all, these meetings will likely utilize locations and venues that are more cost-effective and conservative so the company does not appear to be extravagant or wasteful in spending. Large meetings and conventions will be slow to return to normal and will probably not be held until 2021 or later.”
Davis agrees that virtual med/pharma meetings will have a much greater impact in the short term while the industry adjusts to the rules and restrictions, and potentially long term. “For instance, when recruiting for live advisory boards, reasons for invitation declines were mainly because of unavailability,” Davis says. “Physicians typically receive many invitations — whether it be to advisory boards, congresses or speaker meetings, and their time is limited. Therefore, being able to attend a virtual advisory board, still receive an honorarium check and provide key feedback is much more attractive than having to take time off from work or their family to travel for a day meeting.”
Global Access Meetings has integrated a virtual platform that would allow these physicians to attend meetings they might not otherwise be able to attend. “We are now developing reimagined meetings — what meetings will need to look like now in order to keep attendee health a top priority. It is imperative to work with properties to ensure we have the correct contract clauses in place that protect our clients in case of another pandemic,” Davis says. “We are collaborating with other leading meeting experts to learn from each other. And from a planner perspective, we must evaluate the attendee experience from the moment they arrive to ensure we are allowing for social distancing at attendee registration, in our meeting set ups, breaks, meals, transportation and group events. We are excited for when we can bring people together again and we will be prepared to adapt and evolve as our industry continually changes.” C&IT