Virtual Medical Conferences Vs In-Person: Where To In 2022?

6 min read
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First Published: 
May 2022

Key Learnings contained in this article:

Virtual medical conferences stepped in during a time that live networking events weren’t possible. Are they still the answer for the medical community?

More than two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, and the phrase “new normal” is our new normal for discussing medical conferences. For some, online events meant reaching a global audience, reducing logistics costs and continuing education without spreading the virus. For others, virtual medical conferences meant “Zoom fatigue” and missing out on valuable networking opportunities.

This article will discuss the context and trends for virtual conferences over the last two years, the pros and cons for continuing online events, and where on earth do we go from here.

Attendees Vs Organisers- Who Does The Virtual Conference Debate Affect?

The conversation around virtual medical conferences can be examined from two perspectives: organisers and attendees.

For medical conference event organisers, moving online in the last two years has presented significant logistical issues. Although it reduces costs around event space rentals and staffing, online conferences still require a high level of professionalism and value for those attending. Even with free tickets, getting professionals to register for “yet another” online meeting can be a challenge.

This could be due to the perceived value of online conferences versus in-person.

While virtual conferences may be more accessible, their perceived value may be less than in person events. An article by members of the Scoliosis Research Society shared how many physicians rely on conferences to upskill and connect with colleagues. Chan et al. found that although their virtual conference was more accessible, the overall learning objectives for the conference and didactic sessions were more valuable in person. However, for small group workshops there was no observable difference.

The balance between reduced logistics costs, profit margins, and giving value to attendees continues for conference organisers more than two years into the pandemic.

For attendees, virtual conferences create greater accessibility, whether geographical, financial or time related. Medical conferences offer continued education and networking opportunities for attendees.

There have been varied responses to virtual conference surveys. The greatest difference in responses tends to be comparisons between age groups and geographic locations.

For example, nearly half of respondents aged 20-40 years prefer physical, in person conferences. This could indicate the need for networking opportunities earlier in their career. At the end of 2021, GMed also ran a survey that showed a growing preference towards virtual conferences in comparison with their study earlier in the same year. This could be explained by the fact that many of their respondents were from lower income countries and that the pandemic didn’t show signs of slowing down nearly two years in.

The answer to whether virtual conferences should be the “new norm”? It depends on who you ask.

In the following section, we will go through some of the observed pros and cons for both organisers and attendees.

Pros and Cons of Running Online Medical Conferences

There are some obvious pros and cons for running virtual medical conferences. For example, organisational costs are reduced and tickets can be more affordable for attendees. However we want to go into some of the more nuanced pros and cons of running conferences online.

Pros of Running Online Medical Conferences

Accessibility for professionals is one of the biggest pros of virtual medical conferences.

By nature, medical conferences are attended by busy professionals. Moving online allows doctors to continue education and stay up to date with changes in their field.

Another obvious pro is reduced cost. This is not only for attendee ticket prices, but for travel, accommodation and costs associated with leave and locum cover.

For organisers, there are many pros associated with modernization. These include things like

  • Using interpreters/ captions for live or recorded content and reaching a diverse, global audience
  • Running VIP ticket tiers (including break out groups or bonus on demand content for example)
  • Paying their valuable speakers more due to reduced budgets in other areas
  • Improving video hosting tech and digital marketing associated with running conference
  • Recording lectures for people to watch back for greater retention (which can also be monetized)

Virtual conferences have also opened up greater opportunities for patient input. Online events make it easier to co-create with patients and gain valuable input for a more holistic approach to medicine.

Cons of Running Online Medical Conferences

While virtual events are a good fallback during the pandemic, there are a few reasons to return to in-person models (or some combination of in-person and online).

Firstly, as outlined above by Chan et al., the overall learning objectives of many conferences are less effective online. To get the most out of teaching modules, in-person tends to get the most engagement and benefit for attendees. This is especially true for the medical community, in cases where physicians need to observe skills in action (e.g. working with cadavers).

As well as this, an obvious drawback is the lack of valuable networking with colleagues. For example, the LSX World Congress in the UK runs specific meet ups for different niches who are attending. This offers unparalleled networking opportunities and potential revenue sources for organisers.

Another con is that in person conferences can contribute to emissions. Virtual conferences have obvious green benefits in comparison to people travelling to events.

Other cons mostly include anecdotal issues around “video meeting saturation” like

  • Distractions working from home
  • Attending too many online meetings in the last few years
  • Less commitment to attending if you are watching from home
  • Video conferencing software and technical issues getting in the way of engagement

So where do conferences go from here? Most are sure that it will be a combination of both in person and virtual to account for both sides of the argument.

Where To From Here With Virtual Conference Models?

A survey completed in March 2021 showed that while the majority of doctors preferred physical events, around 26% of respondents would prefer physical and virtual equally.

With the number of online attendees increasing, and the pandemic still ongoing, this trend of “hybrid” medical conferences is probably the most likely model to continue.

In 2020, the European Society of Cardiology online conference saw a 117% increase in attendees in comparison to the in-person event the previous year. This could have been put down to waived entry fees and the fact that it was the first year of the pandemic. However, in 2021 the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology and the European Society of Organ Transplants both ran hybrid medical conferences that saw 2-5 times the number of online attendees as the in-person part of the event.

This indicates that a combination of virtual and in-person events will probably continue to grow, as well as the need for greater organisation and modernisation by the societies and boards that run them.

Quick Tips For How To Run A Successful Virtual Medical Conference In 2022

Offer some form of networking opportunity if it is purely virtual (e.g. break out Q&A rooms)

Final Thoughts On The Future Of Medical Conferences

The bottom line is that there are arguments for both virtual medical conferences and the return to in-person events. If organisers can successfully maintain engagement and high quality teaching alongside valuable networking opportunities, virtual medical conferences (and hybrid models) are here to stay.

Reference article:

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Lucy Bekker
Lucy writes what she knows- after 7 years experience in the primary health sector and 3 years in digital marketing and research, medical communications is it! When she's not writing she's dancing, drinking coffee, and spending time with her husband.
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