The cancellation of the American College of Cardiology conference, an annual event that was set to draw about 18,000 attendees to Chicago’s McCormick Place starting this Saturday, will be remembered as one of industry’s higher-profile symbols of the toll from coronavirus. 

While cancelling was a matter of medical necessity, the move breaks a 69-year streak of in-person ACC meet-ups, the college’s president said in a somber announcement. Its impact resonated elsewhere: the move may have influenced other congress organizers to pull the plug on their spring meetings. 

But the ACC’s flagship event hasn’t been called off completely. Instead, the group said, it intends to bring the cardiovascular community together via a free virtual event. 

As a growing number of healthcare confabs have been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, many professional associations are scrambling to retool their events for online consumption. In turn, med-ed and communications vendors are seeing a spike in demand as associations look to them for help in fulfilling their educational missions digitally – and, in many cases, preserving thousands of dollars in sponsorship, delegate and/or exhibitor/grant revenue attached to those meetings.

“The calls are coming in every day,” said Robert Rosenbloom, founder of PlatformQ, whose software is used by medical societies, biopharma firms, colleges and universities to shift in-person programming and student/learner engagement online. “Their conferences, unfortunately, aren’t happening and it seems like they were not prepared on how they can leverage online events and digital tools to do the education they need to do.”

An updated industry list counts some 31 medical meetings either cancelled or postponed as of Tuesday, with eight still going ahead and another eight, like the ACC, switching to a virtual gathering. This week another large, in-person meeting, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), originally planned for May 29-June 2 in Chicago, joined the virtual camp. Meanwhile, more than 100 academic medical centers have restricted their faculty from work-related travel, according to a crowd-sourced list.

When contacted last week about which components were to be transferred online for this weekend’s event, ACC spokespeople confirmed that virtual plans were still “forming and being finalized.” That will likely be the case right up until the meeting’s start.

Pharmaceutical companies are also availing themselves of these services, given that pharma sales reps can’t call on doctors face to face and physician KOLs can’t travel for dinner meetings. That means an increase in requests to shift lunch-and-learns and speaker presentations to a remote format, according to Rosenbloom, who said he’s been fielding calls from pharma brand managers to arrange virtual educational programming in support of drug launches.

“In today’s day and age, with everything going on, we can’t keep up with the demand,” he said. 

Internet-based education has similarly surged. Thanks to increases over the past five years, web-based CME activities accounted for about a third of physician interactions in 2018, while more than half of non-physician learners engaged that way, according to the Accreditation Council for CME, which tracks certified CME given by accredited providers. But overall, a great many educational activities for HCPs are still held live, ranging from hospital grand rounds and society conferences to non-CME education like pharma-backed speakers bureaus and other peer-to-peer education. 

“This is a very fluid situation,” said Trey Riley, EVP and head of business development for EvermedTV, a company which helps pharma companies create virtual conferences for clinicians to access content on-demand.

On March 10, shortly after the ACC announced its plans to go remote, EvermedTV released what it calls a “conference virtualization plan,” designed to enable societies to turn annual conferences into “global, digitally-powered, multi-day events” that run on its technology. 

“[Most] HCPs do not attend the major medical conferences in person,” Riley said in an email. “COVID-19 only increases that percentage.” 

Revenue protection is often a factor. EvermedTV, for instance, claims it can help societies offset “potential seven-figure revenue losses” by leveraging existing industry sponsorship budgets.

Societies are asking whether, by packaging learning modules into an online presentation package, attendance costs would not have to be returned, said Mary Anderson, group president, medical education at Haymarket Media, which owns the myCME online platform. [Haymarket Media is the parent company of MM&M.]

Meanwhile, to fulfill grants already sold, med-ed providers are reengineering some of their own live programs into digital. Efforts range from impromptu Zoom meetings to more substantial solutions.

As an example of the latter, the National Association for Continuing Education (NACE) taped its first fully-remote episode of the “Conversations In” series on March 14. The “Conversations In” platform consists of a fully equipped video studio that delivers webinars and virtual interaction to large numbers of remote participants. Speakers appear in-studio as attendees tune in remotely.

But for the March 14 episode, which was geared toward primary care physicians, NPs and PAs, even the faculty appeared via webcam. The event drew 1,821 attendees. A live panel with two nationally recognized pandemic experts covered clinical presentation of COVID-19. Other topics on the six-hour broadcast included management of psoriasis and approaches to diabetes. [Both NACE and myCME are members of the Haymarket Medical Education Group, which is part of Haymarket Media.] 

“We’re having to be really creative really fast,” said Anderson.

Rosenbloom said he hopes both pharma and the societies use the current crisis as an opportunity to develop a long-term, viable digital solution, not just a “quick fix.” Pharma companies whose field forces are reliant on in-person details or dinner meetings, for instance, would be ill-advised to ever again put themselves in a situation where they don’t have a strategy for delivering that information virtually. Such plans should be in place from the get-go and integrated so as to foster the delivery of education across the product life cycle. 

This also holds for education providers. “So much of the standard CME industry is heavily weighted on physical events, grand rounds and the like, and video and digital is an afterthought. Now you’re seeing that shift,” said Rosenbloom.

He added that the entire industry will have to adapt. “Outside of what’s going on with coronavirus, we’ve got a population that needs to be supported. All that has to continue in some manner. It just can’t stop. That’s the challenge.”