by Michael J. Shapiro | April 01, 2018

The results are in: Health-care providers highly value face-to-face meetings. Sure, they demand -- and receive -- an ever-growing amount of virtual education, but a recent study reveals that HCPs prefer scientific congresses or meetings as the number-one channel for medical education.

And that preference is growing. Over the past two years, face-to-face meetings surpassed scientific journals as the preferred education channel, according to the Science of Healthcare Professional Meetings by health-care services provider Ashfield. The kicker for meeting planners, however, is that physician attendees are more demanding than ever about the quality of that face-to-face experience: More than three-quarters (77 percent) said they attend only meetings that offer a real return on the time and money invested -- a whopping 30 percent increase since Ashfield's 2016 study.

Also, they want to spend less time away from their practice, preferring to be away for an average of 3.2 days, including travel. The average tolerable travel time is now 4.7 hours, significantly less than the 6.8 hours tallied in Ashfield's 2016 survey.

For those who organize medical meetings, it's critical to have a clear understanding of audience preferences, with the ultimate goal to attract and satisfy all stakeholders -- and keep them coming back.

A delicate balance
Balancing audience or member preferences with sponsor and exhibitor priorities is a universal challenge for conference organizers. But it carries its own set of obstacles for medical gatherings, simply because the relationship among attendees and sponsors is so heavily regulated. Rules and guidelines limit some solutions, while boards and sponsors often tend to resist major changes. As a result, better understanding the changing needs of HCP attendees themselves is essential in determining the next steps in the evolution of such events.

That's one reason Ashfield conducted the follow-up Science of Healthcare Professional Meetings study, which surveyed 237 HCPs representing four specialty areas (oncology, neurology, diabetes/endocrinology and cardiology) in four geographic markets (U.S., U.K., France and Germany).

"We really need to make sure we're hearing feedback directly from the health-care professionals in our industry, and that we're taking into account their perspective as well as their preferences," notes Katie Koziol, CMP, HMCC, director of client services for Ashfield Meetings & Events. "We need to give them this platform. We wanted to look at what has shifted in the past two years since our initial study, and have two different data sets to compare and contrast."

Show me the education
This follow-up study also probed further with its questions, closely examining the challenges to meeting attendance and how HCPs decide whether the meeting is likely to be worth the investment.

That questioning is particularly crucial, given the overwhelming majority of physicians who simply won't attend meetings that don't hold the promise of sufficient ROI. In terms of sussing out that likely return, seven out of 10 survey respondents would like a single online platform to serve as a communication channel, registration site and content channel. They want easy access to the meeting agenda and speaker biographies. Health-care providers want to easily investigate who will be at an event and what they'll be presenting before committing their time.

"They're setting themselves learning objectives," says Koziol, of HCP respondents, "and then assessing afterward whether those were achieved or not."

In addition to that focus on content, physicians are looking more carefully at educational formats. "They're evaluating how interactive the meetings and sessions are," says Koziol. "Instead of going to a meeting where they might just sit in a large audience and be lectured to, they're looking for workshops, interactive sessions and peer learning." The traditional lecture format on its own, say attendees, is less and less likely to convince them to physically attend an event.

Design with empathy
Other health-care organizations are digging deep to determine attendee preferences. One such initiative was born at PCMA's Education Conference last June in New York City. A number of associations in the health-care field partnered with the event-design team at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to embark on a "design-thinking" approach to evolve medical-meeting formats.

Design thinking, according to Michael Glatts, senior director of global congresses at Pfizer, is a collaborative way of solving design problems. "It's where you build your way forward," he said at the PCMA Convening Leaders meeting in January. "It's where you want to partner with the people you're trying to delight and build [solutions] with them."  

Such an approach, says Glatts, can be counterintuitive for event planners accustomed to providing answers. Rather than falling in love with their own solutions, he told his audience, planners should "fall in love with your users."

To build that attendee relationship, the association execs and conference organizers working on the initiative with Glatts have conducted large numbers of "empathy interviews" with their audience members -- conversations in which the event organizers must resist attempting to solve each problem raised in order to better understand why something is a problem.

Tanya Almond, PCMA

Those empathy interviews are true "aha moments," added Tonya Almond at Convening Leaders. Almond, who has since joined PCMA as vice president of knowledge and experience design, was vice president, meetings and continuing education, at the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry when the initiative began. Although her organization already was using experience-design techniques, the interviews were incredibly revealing and thought-provoking. "You have to eliminate what you thought people wanted, and really listen," she noted.

Collaborator vs. customer
One not-so-surprising theme that has emerged from a variety of interviews in this initiative, across different health-care associations, represents one of the greatest challenges faced by medical meeting organizers: HCP attendees are feeling too much sales pressure from pharma and/or device exhibitors and sponsors -- the industry partners.

"Our surveys of attendees tell us that they don't want to be sold -- they want to be taught," says Michelle Turenne, chief of corporate affairs and business development for the American Thoracic Society, "or they want to be engaged, or they want to help solve a problem." Turenne, who also is participating in the PCMA design-thinking initiative, found similar themes revealed in the ATS empathy interviews. Her HCP attendees need opportunities to collaborate with experts without threat of being sold to.

Regulations dictate that accredited education sessions can't take place on the exhibit floor. So a big challenge for organizers is getting HCPs to the show floor and developing engaging content to keep them there.

Organizers at the American Thoracic Society found solutions that seem to work. The show's exhibit floor has grown every year for the past eight years. Last year's total attendance was 16,169, with 202 exhibiting companies and approximately 65,800 net square feet sold.

Ready to engage: HCP attendees
at the ATS 2017 Conference found
hands-on opportunities.

Various tactics keep HCPs present and engaged. Last year, Stacy McManus, CEM, the organization's director of corporate alliances and exhibition operations, launched Guru Bars -- short presentations and interactive sessions that exhibitors can hold on the show floor, led by subject-matter experts, that inspire collaborative discussion. The initiative was a hit and is expanding for this year's show.

Also, in a recent design-thinking workshop, Turenne's group built a prototype for a "Collaboration Station," an exhibit-floor hub that is divided into quadrants with opportunities for high-level discussions in different areas of interest, including clinical trials, problem-solving, patient advocacy and future plans. While that idea speaks to the needs of many HCP attendees, Turenne and company still need to get all stakeholders onboard.

"I'd love to tell you we're replicating the Collaboration Station at ATS," says Turenne. But while they've incorporated the collaboration principals into other aspects of their meetings and activities, "our exhibitors have been clear that they do not want us to build anything that would compete with their time in the exhibit hall," she says.

Turenne is optimistic, however, as the design-thinking workshops and interviews, as well as the collaborative programs at ATS, already have been paying off in small doses. Big solutions can't be rushed, she adds. "It's a long process, and it takes a lot of work. But it's clearly worth it."