Conferences go Virtual during COVID
By Laura Freeman
While it is essential for health care professionals to stay current with the rapidly changing body of knowledge, it can be a challenge to accomplish this during the pandemic.
Covid-19 shut down the feasibility of in-person conferences and seminars, cutting off access to primary sources of information. As many spring events were cancelled by lockdowns, professionals in healthcare communications were already working on strategies to adapt to the new reality.
Necessity has inspired an innovative metamorphosis in communications technology and it is redefining how we see information sharing. For a front row perspective, we spoke with several people who have been involved in navigating these changes.
Russ Dorsey is manager of information services for Kassouf and Company, who are experts in the financial and business side of healthcare. Edward McLain is the CEO and of Digital Motion Event Services, a technology-focused events company.
Lisa Beard coordinates two semiannual conferences for the Alabama Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), and Jennifer Cork, as vice president of the Birmingham MGMA chapter, organizes programming for the group's monthly meetings. For the Medical Association of the State of Alabama (MASA), Meghan Martin, the director of membership, is responsible for programming educational events earning CEU credits.
"In the past, Kassouf sponsored monthly lunch and learn meetings to pass on new information to clients," Russ Dorsey said. "With the virus, that all went out the window. We had to find a way to quickly communicate details about PPP loans and the CARES act, so we set up webinars. We knew our clients would be interested, but we didn't expect the huge response that we got.
"We had also been doing Zoom meetings internally and suddenly went from doing a few to more than 20 a month. The larger practice groups started contacting us to set up zoom meetings so their personnel in multiple locations could talk about details that had to be handled quickly. We also sponsored conferences for professional groups. Some of the spring meetings had to be postponed or cancelled. No one knew how long this would be going on, so we had to start looking at how we could use communications technology to host virtual events later in the year."
The most evident glitches from pivoting on the fly grew out of the fact that people in healthcare didn't necessarily understand tech, and people in tech didn't necessarily understand healthcare, unless they were already specializing in that area.
"We had about 30 presenters from all over the world at the Rheumatology Conference webinar," Edward McLain said. "We practiced and walked each presenter through the process ahead of time, but when we went live--let's just say it was controlled chaos. But the important thing was that we proved it could work. The first thing I did when I got back to my office was to write software we could add to Zoom that allows me to control all the technical aspects. For the next conference, all the presenters had to do was click on a link and they immediately went to the right place with the right camera and all their notes in front of them, ready to run straight through the presentation."
Dorsey said, "Security is important any time you're working in healthcare, and in a webinar there are legal aspects much like the rules of broadcasting that may be new to people on the healthcare side. For example, if you are planning to post content for future viewing, you need to get a signed release from the speakers. The same goes for photographs. You also can't just play any hit song you like as music. You need to choose something from a legally cleared music library so you don't have to worry about being sued."
McLain said, "From the other side of the coin, there's a lot to be said for working with a tech company that has a background in healthcare. I am fortunate that both of my parents are physicians, so I grew up knowing about compliance and the fact that you have to keep in mind what you can do and what you can't do without walking into a compliance problem. This is particularly true when you are dealing with pharmaceuticals, especially black box pharmaceuticals where the details quickly become complicated."
Although virtual meetings save money on venues, travel and hotel rooms, there are still some costs. Once you go beyond Zoom, the cost of the platform itself can vary wildly, especially for virtual conferences with a large number of participants. There will probably be a cameraman to pay, and possibly a host and video production service, depending on what type of features you want to include. Someone has to pay the cost, part of which in the past was covered by sponsors.
Both Dorsey and McLain agree that the biggest difficulty they are seeing now is finding a way to make sponsorships worth the investment to sponsors.
"You can't have a barrage of ads hitting participants up front, and it isn't easy to get participants to take time away from work to click on zoom rooms to see the information they would have previously found in a sponsor's booth," Dorsey said. "Sponsors are struggling to find ways to talk about their products in webinars while staying in compliance."
Although this year sponsors had money left in their budgets from cancelled conferences that they could use to promote their products, future participation will depend on finding ways to bring value to sponsors.
Organizers who have been getting feedback from virtual meetings have been surprised by just how popular they have been.
Jennifer Cork said, "Our monthly Birmingham MGMA zoom meetings let us compare notes on things we really needed to know, like expanded coverage for telemedicine visits, and we exchanged tips on how we were setting up our practices and waiting rooms to keep patients and staff safe when we reopened. The format also allows us to do more interactive things like breaking into smaller groups to brainstorm solutions to problems and then coming back together to present ideas. To encourage participation, we have been careful to choose timely, relevant topics and speakers.
"Reviews from our members have been terrific, and even when we get back to normal, we want to continue offering online participation because the nature of our work often has us dealing with last minute issues so if we can't make it in person, we can attend online. If our day runs late, we can check a posted recording of the meeting later. The one thing we really miss is the networking and the social connection of face-to-face interactions. We have online chat, but we still look forward to being able to talk in person."
Cork is also CEO of a large dermatology practice, Total Skin and Beauty. The practice used zoom meetings to communicate with staff in different location and talk with physicians to develop an action plan about what they needed to do to set up their practice to reopen and safely see over 350 patients a day. The resulting safety protocols are receiving high marks from patients.
Lisa Beard said, "We were lucky to have the spring Alabama MGMA meeting scheduled for early March, just before the shut down. By summer, we were able to do a mask and social distancing hybrid version with some of us at Sandestin and others online.
"Though we always enjoy meeting in person, online meetings do offer some advantages. For example, more people can participate. They don't have to pay for travel and hotels, or take a lot of time out of a busy schedule, so other people in the office, who might not normally be able to go, can get the same training. This can be important when we need more backup capacity in the office in case someone else has to quarantine. We also post content online so participants can check it later if their day gets sidetracked, or they can share it with other people in the office."
Beard also advised planning the programming carefully and including elements to hold viewer interest. "You can't do hour after hour of one seminar after another. Try having fun in the breaks, use interactive elements and perhaps have a virtual host with a running theme between sessions. Sponsors might want to include games or prizes in their zoom rooms to attract participation. You can also have chats during programming so participants can discuss points and ask questions.
Since most of Meghan Martin's presentations for MASA involve CEU credit, the format she works with is more defined.
"The primary difference from other conferences and seminars is that to qualify for CEU credit, participants must be watching in real time so they can complete the interactive portions," Martin said. "It's simpler to offer programming in the five specialties I manage in person, but we are using zoom to offer the presentations online.
"The difficulty we encountered most often is that some presenters aren't familiar with using Zoom and we have to walk them through how to use the camera and microphone. In March, when everything shut down so suddenly, we had to just cancel. I'm hoping that by spring we will be able to shift back to meeting in person again."
"It's that it is hard to predict how long we will be dealing with the pandemic," Dorsey said. "Something that we can predict is that this bell will not be un-rung. Now that people know there are advantages to online meetings and they are becoming more comfortable with using the technology, we can expect that an online component will be part of meetings well into the future. The landscape has changed. Tele-visits will be more common than before, and we've seen that many people can work from home and save expensive office space."
McLain said, "The pandemic is also pushing the development of technology. There are many other choices beyond zoom, depending on what you need it to do and how much you want to spend. Since I work with international conferences, one improvement I see coming soon is an easier way for multiple people in distant locations to present together on the same screen. We had a pharmaceutical presentation with a doctor talking about the development of the drug on one side of the country with another doctor talking about its use in patients on the other. I managed to do a workaround to bring them together. Soon, it will probably be just a click on the computer."
Beard said, "The hybrid meeting is something we're going to see more often. Some people prefer the in-person contact, while virtual works better for others. Now people can choose."
Photo 1 caption:
Digital Motion Event Services hosted the Congress of Clinical Rheumatology Conference with presenters from around the world.
Meghan Martin with MASA; Russ Dorsey; Jennifer Cork.