Is the face-to-face conference dead?

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By Dr Simon Leigh, Head of Digital Insights & Innovation

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In the pre-pandemic era, conferences were a social gathering. An opportunity to network and listen to the latest science amongst peers, while enjoying time outside of the conference hall with colleagues and friends. But as we adapt to a post-COVID reality, what is the future? For medical researchers and practitioners, conferences have been a long-standing date in the diary, but in 2020 medical education organisations had to adapt quickly to the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic by moving content onto digital platforms to ensure healthcare professionals could stay connected and informed.

For conference and event organisers it has been a steep learning curve, and luckily many have succeeded in delivering highly successful virtual formats worldwide. This digital evolution has ensured medical education can continue, in addition to improving accessibility and inclusivity and removing barriers to attendance and interaction. But at what expense? Do the benefits of accessibility outweigh the joy of being fully immersed in a true conference experience? In our retrospective survey identifying over 3.1 million medical researchers globally, we found 15,000 conversations focused specifically on this question – the future of the medical conference.

The benefits of virtual conferences

How medical conferences have adapted is something to be admired. Each event has changed its strategies, at speed, harnessing the power of technology to facilitate and deliver content, which in turn has increased accessibility and made conferences widely available to all.

Virtual conferences have been well attended by individuals from countries that are often unrepresented at face-to-face meetings, with an increased number of researchers and students able to engage with the online format.

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With many healthcare professionals juggling hectic work commitments and family life, the flexibility to interact with conference content, at a time to suit their needs, is seen as a welcome step forward. The positive financial and environmental impacts of less travel are also seen as a benefit to virtual conferences, again widening participation to those who perhaps did not benefit from the necessary budgeting for conference attendance in previous years.

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Attendees hope for different outcomes

The fact is that the healthcare community hopes for different outcomes from the conference experience. Some crave the social element and face-to-face interaction, while others prefer the flexibility of online delivery. From October 2020 to March 2021, the number of medical professionals stating that they hope digital attendance remains an option increased by 134%, growing month on month, which is a clear indication that the appetite for the virtual conference remains. But similarly, the number of medical professionals who reported missing face-to-face interaction at events also increased by 88%. The old adage is that you can’t please everyone, but in the medical conference world, maybe you can? The hybrid conference would appear by far to be the most effective solution.

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A powerful combination of in-person and digital delivery will transform the medical conference as we know it, allowing for human interaction while maintaining accessibility.

The winners and losers by therapeutic area, and by market

By looking deeper into the impacts of accessibility by market and therapy area, there have been some clear winners and losers as a consequence of virtual participation. We performed a 2-year retrospective analysis reviewing four therapeutic areas (oncology, hepatology, diabetes, gastroenterology), and a total of 24 conferences in the EU and US, exploring 470,000 global medical conversations on Twitter.

US and oncology conferences experience the largest reduction in digital engagement

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Comparing conference mentions from 2018 to 2020, engagement was reduced between 25% and 31% depending on the therapeutic area. Oncology conferences, which traditionally receive high attendance and engagement, experienced the largest decline in social interactions after going virtual, but saw big increases in non-traditional markets in Africa, Latin America and the Pacific islands.

In 2020, the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) conference saw a 31% decrease in online mentions compared with the previous year, while the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) conference also experienced a 22% reduction in digital interactions (versus 2019), meaning oncology was the most affected therapy area. Why? The answer isn’t obvious, but clearly a different approach is needed to increase engagement and involvement as we move into 2021.

American flagship conferences for each therapeutic area experienced the greatest drop-offs in digital amplification. European conferences had the same overall engagement as the previous two years, with the exception of the European Association for the Study of the Liver’s meeting (EASL).

The overall decline in engagement was the result of usually highly engaged countries, including the US, Spain and the UK, experiencing reductions in engagement of 28%, 32% and 47%, respectively.

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Digital events increase access to science in other countries

While overall engagement with oncology events reduced by 28%, engagement increased by 1733% in Nicaragua, by 1124% in Taiwan, by 733% in Vietnam, and by 299% in Egypt.

The relationship observed within the field of oncology was also present in diabetes. Although overall engagement with diabetes conferences decreased by 25% from 2019 to 2020, some countries that typically face the greatest barriers to engaging in flagship events (Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa), benefitted from digital events. Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Tanzania and Honduras, experienced significant increases in engagement, as did South Africa, Ghana and Pakistan.

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Combining digital delivery with face-to-face attendance is likely to increase accessibility to science and improve engagement in countries that are typically less well represented at events. However, the drop-off in engagement from G8 markets is a clear indication that they are far more likely to engage with face-to-face conferences, making the hybrid model a clear winner all round, once again.

Dissemination of science is the priority

The remainder of 2021 looks uncertain as each country navigates its own challenges around the effects of COVID-19, but research shows it is the opportunity to learn and benefit from science that is the driving factor behind the success of a conference. Human interaction and socialising is important, but it is not the overarching benefit, or the sole reason to attend an event. Accessibility and benefiting from the science is truly what counts.

 

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