There’s never been a more interesting time to hold medical meetings. In our post–blockbuster-drug world, we are seeing more investments in specialty products, greater indications per compound, and increased competition in most therapeutic categories. This new reality means that gaining better, faster, and more concise quality feedback from healthcare practitioners throughout a product’s life cycle is more critical than ever. Never has focused market insight mattered more to brand outcomes.

As a result, smart brand strategists and medical affairs professionals seek not only to consult and collaborate with varied groups of HCP advisers, but to do so more frequently throughout the year so that they can react to changing market dynamics and gain invaluable feedback in a timely fashion. But there are roadblocks. Compliance challenges, such as the difficulty of gaining approval from those within the company, along with external compliance challenges, such as the upcoming enforcement of the Physician Payment Sunshine Act and its required documentation and reporting, make it difficult for industry teams to execute a more nimble adviser strategy.

Additionally, it often becomes cost-prohibitive to attempt to expand traditional “live-meeting-only” approaches to realize more flexible HCP engagement. Fortunately, you can alleviate many of the issues related to engaging HCPs by integrating new digital venues into advisory programs.

Know Your Venues
Today’s meeting organizer has two general digital venue options: online conferencing (also referred to as webcasting); and Web-based discussion forums.

Online conferences are simply online meetings in which all participants are simultaneously watching and listening (via phone or computer/tablet) to the online presenters. The participant sees the slides next to either a photo or a live video stream of the presenter. With a small number of HCP advisers, you can follow the presentations with live discussions through open phone lines. With a larger group, HCPs can type in their questions for the moderator to read and the presenter to answer.

Webcasts can be planned in a shorter time frame than can on-site meetings, and they eliminate the hassle and costs of travel and hotel logistics. They are particularly good solutions for meetings of fewer than 10 participants and for meetings shorter than two hours. HCPs and meeting planners both are becoming familiar with webcasting, and the technology itself is continuously improving. However, keep in mind that it can be difficult to schedule and obtain comprehensive feedback and, if HCP advisers are new to the brand team, it’s difficult to create new relationships via this format.

The Web-based discussion forum, a second digital venue for adviser collaboration, is a secure meeting solution specifically designed to encourage HCP interaction through an online community. These are not anonymous chat rooms or online survey tools. Online communities are private, invitation-only forums that work by mimicking the “online university” approach to collaboration. Each adviser is invited to create a personal profile that can include a photo, list of publications, and current research so everyone in the community can see who is participating.

Typically, meetings occur throughout the year as “engagement windows.” For example, if a medical affairs team wants to get feedback on a new clinical development program or a specific protocol, the team will send a message to all advisers that there will be new information and questions on the community that require feedback within the upcoming two-week period. (The time period could be a week or a month, depending on the size of the group and urgency of the feedback required.) The team can post background documents for adviser review and then post a list of open-ended questions that advisers can consider before providing thoughtful feedback. This pre-approved window allows participants and moderators to interact on their own time. Because the time windows are active, participants can continuously converse both in groups and one-on-one with moderators, depending on meeting objectives. The engagement windows can be interspersed throughout the year to gain feedback as required.

Often integrating webcasting capabilities as well, these solutions provide the broadest amount of flexibility, convenience, and cost scalability. For additional convenience, HCPs can interact in these online solutions via mobile applications (e.g., iPhone, iPad).

Determining the Right Mix of Venues for Your Meeting
All three venues—live, webcast, online community—have their place and meeting planners should look to understand and integrate all three into a successful program as needed. It is a common mistake to believe that you must rely only on one.
Thinking about which venues to use can be fairly straightforward. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and these can be aligned with the program’s goals (download PDF chart here).

In terms of maximizing regulatory transparency, the topics for discussion are not as controlled in a live meeting as they can be in a digital meeting. Discussions during live meetings generally are not recorded, so if conversations go off track, there is no transparency to show that it was handled per company policy nor is there documentation that any discussion occurred. A discussion may start and travel quite far down an inappropriate path before the moderator realizes and re-directs it appropriately. Conversely, in an online community, comments or posts are not happening in real time. This means that there’s typically more time on the part of the sponsor to notice a discussion is going in the wrong direction, validate how to handle it per company policy, and then manage the discussion.

Build Digital Venues for Medical/Legal/Compliance
While the online or digital space can be a bit daunting for many leaders in regulatory, legal, and compliance departments, digital venues actually may make it easier to document compliance. Some of the issues to be addressed prior to holding a digital event include reworking HCP contracts to reflect the online vs. live venue; terms of use and other legal agreements; processes for avoiding, monitoring, and handling any key concern areas (such as off-label, claim expansion, or adverse event discussion); and proper user and moderator orientation. Be sure you choose webcasting or online-forum technology solutions that can address these issues.

Drive Participation in Digital Venues
So how do we translate the live conversation to these new digital venues? One key factor is to have a good moderator for the online discussion. Whether that moderator is from the company team or an HCP thought leader, he or she should know how to ask open-ended questions to spark robust conversation. Good moderators are also adept at drawing out reticent participants to ensure full feedback from all advisers. In digital venues, it becomes even more important for the moderator to take on this “drawing out” role. In webcasting venues, the moderator must closely monitor and catalog adviser participation in real time. Conversely, online communities will typically provide moderators with more analytics around adviser participation per topic, but require stronger “nudges” by moderators to reach and influence participants during session windows. Online communities must be monitored daily for participation, compliance, and content.
Another success factor is the refinement of scientific content. Materials prepared for digital venues must stand on their own even more than those prepared for presentation to advisers in live meetings. The content must be provided in a format that is easy to review and is relevant to the questions being asked in the discussion forum. Also, because content is often presented electronically, it is critical that you have appropriate confidentiality tools in place.

It’s also important to ensure participants are oriented into the community so they understand the community’s navigation and are comfortable with how they participate. Before advisers sign their agreements, they should be aware of the selected venues and corresponding participation expectations—and these expectations should be included in their contracts. Not all advisers may wish to participate in all types of venues. Also, for digital venues, time should be allocated to orient the participants as to the workings of the online tools and to help them understand how they can ask for assistance.

Digital venues are exploding in terms of frequency of use and effectiveness. We realize that nothing can replace the value of a face-to-face meeting, but so far HCPs who participate in these communities are really enjoying the convenience and flexibility that they offer. With some good planning, you can successfully hold meetings in the digital space while getting the feedback that you need to move your business objectives forward.

Lance Hill is the CEO of Within3, which develops online communities for health professionals. A 20-year technology industry veteran, his expertise includes incorporating social media safely into healthcare communication strategies. He has been involved as a thought leader in pharmaceutical marketing and health 2.0 conferences.

Joan Bradley, PharmD, is president and CEO of JB Ashtin, a scientific agency that collaborates with pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device clients to foster the exchange of scientific information among healthcare providers. For more than 20 years, she has helped her clients deliver relevant information to the international healthcare community.

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