How Digital Engagement Is Shaping the Evolution of Medical Education


Apr 18, 2017, 14:45 PM by David McMillin

digital medical

Seven years after the Sunshine Act first lit up the health-care industry, the legislation is having a widespread impact on medical meetings. “Physicians are scrutinizing every interaction they have with vendors,” Michael Sullivan, MBA, DES, director of client services at Vector Health — which manages pharmaceutical, medical device, and diagnostics events — said in an interview. “It’s changed the paradigm. Fewer doctors are willing to go have dinner or be seen in public with representatives from pharmaceutical companies.”

The number of dinners and in-person meetings may be declining, but the need for learning opportunities isn’t shrinking. In fact, as more specialty drugs enter the market, doctors need education more than ever before to understand new options for their patients. Sullivan aims to help the health-care companies who work with Vector Health to provide alternative formats for doctors to learn. However, it’s not as simple as it sounds. “We can’t just say that a 10-minute virtual broadcast will be able to replace a full dinner program,” Sullivan said. “The industry has to create options for physicians.”

Currently, Sullivan’s team at Vector Health is reassessing every element of the traditional speaker program. “I think we are unique in that our goal is to blend new distribution platforms with traditional education,” Sullivan said. “No matter how much technology bleeds into our lives, relationships and face-to-face interaction still matter.  Unfortunately, each year we see a reduction in the number of physicians able or willing to participate in traditional events. To accommodate these physicians, we have created an educational environment that adjusts to the needs of the attendee. This means our events need to adjust to the schedules, institutional or state rules, and time constraints of our target audiences.”

Physicians Play Their Hand

One of the formats that meets those needs for adjustment — something that Sullivan calls a virtual roundtable — is currently in the midst of beta tests at Vector Health, and it takes some cues from a surprising model: online poker. Just as the dealer calls on everyone to play a hand in online games, an instructor in the roundtable asks each doctor in attendance to offer his or her opinion on the discussion topic. “If you’re going to make a virtual roundtable work, you have to have very intentional interactions,” Sullivan said. “The participants need to feel the pressure that they’ll get called on in class. So, you have to train the moderator to make sure that all the physicians offer their opinions.”

While Vector Health is exploring the possibilities of virtual roundtables, Sullivan has noticed that there is one key ingredient from a traditional classroom that doesn’t cross over to the new setting. “If you’re in class, you raise your hand,” Sullivan said. “But it’s really hard to interject in a virtual setting.”

Sullivan highlighted that another key benefit of the virtual roundtable format is the ability to maximize the experts leading the programming. “We have found that many of our best speakers reach their speaker caps as early as six months into the year,” Sullivan said. “The use of marketing-led events such as virtual roundtables provides the option to schedule events toward the end of the year with your best speakers to ensure they stay engaged throughout the entire year.”

An RSVP Worth Remembering

Creating an environment conducive to interactivity isn’t the only challenge facing the medical meetings industry; organizers have an even bigger task on their hands: They need to get attendees to actually show up first. “If attendees respond to an invitation for dinner at a steakhouse, they’re going to come,” Sullivan said. “There’s enhanced accountability for live events, but with virtual events, a simple RSVP won’t do. It seems easier to forget about a 20-minute virtual appointment on the calendar. You have to invest extra resources to make sure that doctors will be there when the program starts.”

Looking Forward

Sullivan recently invested his own personal energy in the DES course. After winning a scholarship from Meetings + Conventions Calgary, he earned his DES certification, and he said the course “offered a perspective on the entire digital spectrum.”

“My biggest takeaway was that meeting professionals need a digital expert to help coordinate the program,” Sullivan said. “We can’t just assume that someone who has handled the logistics for live events will automatically understand all the details for hybrid and virtual events.

“The medical meetings industry is still determining some of the best approaches to facilitate compelling conversations in the virtual format,” Sullivan added. “The technology is there. We’re all just in the process of recognizing how to make it work for our attendees.”

Despite the uncertainty surrounding health-care reform and the continuing evolution of digital education, Sullivan is excited about the next generation of digital engagement. “We’re not changing the basic principles of medical education,” Sullivan said. “We’re adapting them to the ever-changing preferences of attendees who need to share new ideas. As our clients sponsor these digital programs, it’s great to see attendees form enduring communities. And that’s a powerful thing for patients. We’re giving their physicians more avenues to have more discussions about new treatments.”