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What’s next in the evolving medical congress landscape?


  • The COVID-19 pandemic forced medical congresses to move online, which increased attendance, diversity, and patient inclusion whilst posing new logistical and engagement challenges.
  • Len Starnes outlines key approaches medical societies may have to adopt to thrive in the ‘new normal’.

Medical congresses were forced to rapidly evolve during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue providing education in a virtual world. In a recent two-part PharmaPhorum article, Len Starnes outlines the impact of this shift, and how medical congresses can use the momentum it generated to improve in the future.

Moving to virtual formats dramatically boosted attendance at medical congresses, particularly if registration fees were reduced or waived, and increased participation of doctors from middle- and low-income countries. A recent study quantified the improvement in diversity, equity, and inclusion in conferences, and attributed it to convenience and reduced financial burden associated with virtual events. Virtual congresses have also allowed more opportunities for active patient participation, which is now widely recognised as positively affecting treatment outcomes.

The shift in attendee preference from on-site to online congresses over the pandemic was maintained into late 2021, with just over a third of 1,206 doctors stating they preferred virtual-only formats – a statistic that seems unimaginable pre-COVID. In-person congresses were still favoured by most doctors, with the youngest age group (20–40 years old) showing the most interest in the traditional format. Hybrid events, which comprise both face-to-face and virtual components, were preferred by approximately a quarter of the respondents.

“COVID-19 has produced fundamental changes in healthcare professionals’ expectations of medical conferences.”

Congress organisers have had a steep learning curve to offer more specialised content and support, particularly with the increased complexity and cost of hybrid events. Pharmaceutical companies faced changing attendee preferences, with good attendance at virtual symposia but not at virtual exhibition stands, meaning new, compelling reasons are needed for doctors to engage with these events. Furthermore, traditional congress formats (eg lectures with little audience participation) have been found not to impact doctors’ behaviours, and may need to be supplemented with interactive sessions to boost educational benefits for physicians. Starnes suggests the following key measures are needed by medical societies to thrive in the new congress landscape:

  • balance virtual and in-person activities to improve the standards of medical education
  • continuously monitor attendee needs, preferences, and expectations
  • select professional congress organisers with strategic and tactical expertise
  • boost internal digital capabilities and expertise
  • re-evaluate existing business models to ensure sustainability
  • create a more patient-inclusive culture
  • employ innovative tactics.

As we return to attending on-site conferences, their environmental impact must also be considered. We look forward to seeing how evolving practices will improve the inclusivity and sustainability of congresses.


What format would you prefer medical congresses to take moving forwards?

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