The Biggest Challenges Facing Medical Meetings 2013

The Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) recently posted a story in Convene, which discussed “The Biggest Challenges Medical Meeting Planners Face Today.” This topic is of particular interest given all of the new obligations that medical meeting planners must abide by to ensure compliance with the Sunshine Act, now that reporting has officially begun.

The article was adapted from an exclusive roundtable of senior-level medical meeting planners, which included:

  • Felix Niespodziewanski, Director of Convention and Meetings, American College of Surgeons (ACS)
  • Barbara Smith, CAE, Executive Director, American Thyroid Association (ATA)
  • isa Astorga, CMP, Director of Meetings International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH)
  • Ben Hainsworth, Director, Congresses and Meetings Division, European Society of Cardiology (ESC)

Astroga noted that one of the issues with meetings is the Sunshine Act and “how this is going to impact our corporate partners and how that trickledown effect will impact us as a society. People think about the new Sunshine Act here in the States, but there are many countries that have a Sunshine Act, and again, it’s understanding all of those different compliances and how they will impact your meeting. And that’s terribly burdensome.” Moreover, she noted several questions meeting planners have, such as having U.S. speakers go abroad and reporting attributed to the society or meeting host.

Challenges for Medical Meeting Planners

Felix noted that the biggest challenge facing medical meeting planners now is how to “maintain our exhibitor base,” given all the changes taking place in health-care delivery and reimbursement. “We’re starting to lose some of our largest exhibitors, because they’re feeling that we’re too broad of an organization. And some of them have switched their focus to be more visible and active with regional or even smaller chapter state meetings, and also to focus more vertically. While the college is an umbrella organization for all of surgery, the largest contingent of membership are general surgeons, and general surgeons are sort of the steak and not the sizzle, as I say it.”

Felix added that one reason exhibitors struggle to gain access to providers is because “so few of them now are independent practices. They’re part of a large group, or if not a large group, they’re employees of some kind of an institution. And frequently the buying decision now has been moved from their hands to someone in finance procurement, to determine what’s going to be purchased for the entire institution. And access to the provider has become more and more difficult for pharmaceutical and device manufacturers.”

Barbara Smith cited one of the biggest challenges being the “rigors of continuing medical education (CME)”, which she said have “gone overboard … on all fronts.” She noted how she is in the process of submitting a meeting for CME credit. “It used to be that we would take our entire program, which has 32 hours of CME credit” and “130 faculty, all of whom volunteer their time;” no one is getting paid honoraria or travel, and the faculty pay their registration to come to the ATA meeting. The speakers are thyroid specialists; not “any special $10,000 or $50,000 speakers.”

In comparison, the “CME requirements now — for every hour of presentation, for every 20 minutes of presentation, we have to prove that that has a learning objective, it has a pre and post test, it has a proof that that has an impact on patient health. Which makes sense in the big picture of continuing medical education, but when you’re explaining how this one 20-minute talk is going to have a lasting effect — as opposed to the whole meeting, where people are coming for an education that is so exemplary, so without conflict, and so academic — I understand that we do have to have high standards, but it does seem like CME is going overboard.”

Lisa Astorga noted that her biggest challenge as a truly international society with international meetings is “compliance issues,” and not just complying with ACCME standards, but also PhRMA rules and issues of accreditation with local, state and government entities.

For example, she noted her organization would be going into Amsterdam, and at the very last minute was told that the Netherlands has this law that non-prescribing attendees cannot go into the exhibit hall. Astroga said: “Wow. So, this is a Dutch law. This is an industry-imposed sort of thing, and now what do we do?” And who polices this, and what if somebody sneaks in? Do the police come and shut us down? And how does this work exactly?

Ben Hainsworth, also noted that his organization was going to Amsterdam and noted the same issue. His organization is interpreted this Dutch law to mean that not even nurses (some of whom can prescribe) could attend such meetings as medical professionals.

To comply with the Dutch Law, Astroga noted that her group will be putting a sign outside of the hall that says, “Any non-prescribing attendee is not permitted in the hall.” “We’ve been told that no one ever polices it, there’s never been a fine or anything against it. But in addition to that, it’s my understanding that the EU is sort of implementing this not from a state governmental law, but as an industry law across Europe. So that’ll be interesting to see how this pans out.”

Astroga also mentioned the challenge of the sponsorship/ exhibit climate — “is it up, is it down, where are we going? — because the society’s funded a great deal by sponsorship. That whole environment seems to change on a dime. Just when you think things are done and over, they come back up.”

Hainsworth noted that “the overarching issue that … is uncertainty, because we know that there are compliance issues, we know that there are funding issues, we know that there are demographic shifts. But what we never know is when they’re really going to bite in, so to adapt a business model appropriately — not to overreact, not to under-react or to react too late — is really tricky. If we knew that certain things were going to be applied and when, it would be so much easier to deal with. It’s just that we don’t have that visibility.”

This uncertainty creates problems for meeting planners because they do not know “how big a venue to hire.” Another uncertainty Hainsworth noted is “traditionally the registration fees are being paid by industry — not necessarily only pharma, but the health-care industry. And as that slowly goes down, we hear some people saying that physicians, or at least let’s say half of them, would pay for their own congress attendance if they had to or would find alternative funding. But we also hear that they wouldn’t. So the uncertainty as to that gap or the hole that’s going to be left by the industry decision not to fund delegates doesn’t put us on a firm footing.”

Hainsworth explained that this sort of “widespread uncertainty” changes the medical meeting planning process by destabilizing decision-making. If you “lack a certain visibility in what your overall metric is going to be, you don’t know whether you can invest in new technology. You’re not too sure if you’re going to try out that new venue. You’re not too sure if you’re going to be able to hire those six-month interns or the extra staff that you might need for something. Or you don’t know if you’re going to be able to adjust your pricing.”

Astroga noted that it also makes meeting planners “hesitant to do anything,” and “when the funding actually does come through, it’s trying to implement things in a much shorter timeline: Okay, so now we can do this. How do we pull it together and have it done right, have it done correctly, and make the attendee experience what it should be in the time that we have to get things done?”

To adapt to this kind of uncertainty, ESC hired a procurement officer, who has the main task of determining the terms, conditions, scalability and the flexibility of what we buy or rent,” which is “putting a lot more pressure on our suppliers,” Hainsworth noted.

Opportunities for Medical Meeting Planners

With respect to opportunities for meeting planners, Barbara Smith noted that planners still have the ability to provide face-to-face meetings in the digital era. “Incredible synergy and collaborations happen in the halls of hotels outside the meeting room, inside the meeting room. Our thyroidologists already have international collaborations on research, international collaborations on writing guidelines, and what a meeting like this provides is that opportunity for, as we’ve all experienced, that kind of light bulb going off. That always happens when human beings get together and sit down and talk to each other. I don’t think that will ever be replaced.”

Astroga pointed to technology and the kind of evolution meeting planners have participated in making meetings more technologically advanced—and how younger people will bring this experience and excitement to meetings in the future. Both Astroga and Hainsworth also pointed to the importance of the content organizations and societies create and provide to healthcare professionals—which “is the most valuable asset of any organization right now.”

Another update in meetings is offering translation services for meetings in different languages or offering meetings with simultaneous translation, given the growing global foot print and collaboration involved in health care.

Additionally, attendees expect different and new technologies. Learners want “the mobile app, they want interaction; more people are using their iPads and you’re getting audience response.” Hainsworth noted that a proper balance of such new technology is needed, however, and it should not alienate certain members of the audience who may not be familiar or up to speed with such technology. Nevertheless, he noted that attendees are becoming more demanding—not “necessarily knowing exactly what they want, but they’re becoming a bit more discerning.”

Part of the reason attendees are becoming more discerning is that professionals more and more are paying for their participation in meetings. “So it’s a lot more individual people who are really deciding on their own to come, and they’re obviously, for that reason, much more demanding and harder to satisfy — but without saying what they might be expecting, what they might be demanding, what they’re going to be looking for. They simply are more demanding as a group of people. More of them have made the personal decision on their own to sacrifice their time or their holidays and money to go there.”

Although new technology and content is increasingly online, including CME, Felix noted that there is still tremendous value in having “live” experience at meetings, including education and networking. “I think the medical industry is such that there needs to be that interchange, that interaction between people to discuss solutions and possible solutions,” Felix noted.

Hainsworth added that while medical meetings are also a chance for professionals to “get away from work” that is becoming more demanding, the “live” environment is “a bit more conducive to what they consider to be their specialty.” Astroga agreed, and noted that networking and connections are the biggest factors for live meetings. Professionals like “seeing colleagues.”

“One thing about medical meetings, you can get a pair of these physicians or researchers that haven’t seen each other for a while, and they’ll sit down, they’ll talk for hours. It’s amazing. Just looking at each other’s research or looking at each other’s way of how they’re doing it at their institution or their facility. So the networking is extremely, extremely important for them,” Astroga noted. While networking may be for the older base of attendees, Astroga added that younger professionals are “extremely excited about giving these posters and talking about their abstracts. It’s a really big deal for them.”

Barbara noted that the value of live meetings in her experience has been the “high-quality science [that ATA attendees are interested in], where they’re learning cutting edge, they’re learning new data that’s not just a review of what they already have read in their journals. They’re not coming to find out what’s happened in the past year. Our attendees come to hear about the absolute current state of thyroid research and discovery.”

With respect to international meetings, the panel noted “normal challenges” that attendees may face, such as visa issues. For a U.S.-based society, Astroga also noted issues dealing with foreign funding such as Cuba or Iran, and having to deal with OFAC [the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control]. “But generally most of it is just getting folks there — again, the visa issues, and for some of them that have never traveled outside of their area, just being able to make sure that we are accommodating, helpful, and can give them some insight and knowledge to where they’re going,” Astroga noted.

Lastly, the panel discussed new and exciting developments around medical meetings. Barbara discussed meetings involving patients who hear from scientists and physicians about particular issues and who partner with patients to take them through exhibit halls. The participation of patients to a greater degree in their own healthcare—bringing information to their physicians—will be “the new frontier” to a much greater degree.

Hainsworth said he was excited about medical meetings taking place over the whole course of the year, with mobile, digital, remote and paperless meetings, to engage professionals to participate at various times. This creates more value than just attending a weeklong meeting at a nice venue. “A lot of us that work for associations, we do have the hope that we’re actually doing something that shows a higher cause than just share value and so on, and I think that the way that things are evolving means that our work will improve the impact that the professions that we represent have on society,” he added.

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