2021 forecast: Love 'em or hate 'em, virtual medical meetings are here to stay—even after live ones return

If you didn’t fall in love with virtual medical meetings in 2020, let’s just say you’re not alone. They came with their fair share of downsides, including the smaller volume of presented data, the lack of face-to-face conversations about how to translate findings into clinical practice and the nonsensical embargo policies. (OK, that last one is more of a personal gripe.)

But while it’s safe to say the industry is eager to get back to live conferences, there are some aspects of the virtual experience you can expect to see follow us into 2021 and beyond—even after in-person meetings resume.

What started out as a mad dash to adapt to a new format (remember the two-part American Association of Cancer Research meeting?) eventually became an opportunity for both medical organizations and pharma companies to raise the bar when it came to disseminating study results. As doctors got more comfortable accessing presentations online, drugmakers refined the way they delivered information—and many of them were pleased with the outcome.

“I think this has shifted our advancement of our digital sharing of clinical data in a way I don’t think will ever go back to the way we were before,” Mark Wildgust, Ph.D., vice president of global medical affairs for oncology at Johnson & Johnson's Janssen unit, said earlier this month.

One potential result? A hybrid conference model featuring both in-person and virtual attendance options.

“You can’t do everything remotely, but we have learned quite a bit in this last year” about “what’s feasible to be done remotely, and I guarantee you that will carry over,” said Axel Hoos, M.D., Ph.D., GlaxoSmithKline’s senior vice president of oncology R&D, adding, “I’m expecting some virtual components to carry over because they’re actually effective.”

It’s not difficult to see the appeal of such a model from where pharma’s standing. Virtual audiences only give drugmakers a bigger stage from which to trumpet their newest positive results.

“I think that the real benefit that we’ve seen from the virtual medical meetings has been the reach and number of participants from around the globe that have been able to benefit from seeing the presentation of scientific data in real time,” said Dave Fredrickson, executive vice president and global head of AstraZeneca’s oncology business unit. “We’ve been very pleased with how many oncologists and hematologists across the globe … have been able to be exposed to some really important data sets.”

And AstraZeneca would know. Its Adaura trial, which teed up a multibillion-dollar opportunity for targeted lung cancer med Tagrisso in postsurgery patients, was among the year’s biggest spotlight stealers.  

There are other reasons to favor keeping some virtual access around, too. For one, “we can all just actually click on one of these presentations and be able to see the results, and I think that’s so great,” John Tsai, M.D., Novartis’ chief medical officer, said.

“No longer are you having to walk from one side of the convention center to the other. We’ve been to ASH and ASCO where we’ve had to walk 10 minutes and be late and you can’t get into the auditorium to see the results.” (Editor’s note: Some of us have even made the mistake of doing it in heels.)

More importantly, virtual access allows practitioners to attend conferences without having to be away from their patients, Tsai noted.

But while virtual conferences have their advantages, make no mistake, execs predicted: As soon as organizations can safely convene in-person medical meetings, they’re going to do it.

“Nobody wants to give up on in-person meetings,” GSK’s Hoos said. “That still is an essential thing for people to interact as soon as that can be done again safely.”

“The societies are going to be keen to try to get back to in-person meetings, I suspect, as soon as they’re able to do so,” AZ’s Fredrickson agreed. “That would be my prediction.”

We’ll keep the European Society for Medical Oncology meeting in Paris penciled in just in case.