The Future (of Medical Meetings) Will See You Now

Author: Barbara Palmer       

An M.D. and a specialist in the future of medicine, Bertalan Meskó has attended hundreds of conferences and events devoted to medicine and health care. He always arrives hoping “to take part in a vibrant conversation and come away with insights about realizing the future of medicine,” said Meskó, who is based in Budapest, Hungary. But most events have turned out to be  “chock full of boring speeches delivered in front of bullet-point-filled PowerPoints, sounding and feeling the same as talks 20 years ago.”

Bertelan Meskó

But if medical conferences have tended to stay the same, the ground around them is beginning to shake. Medicine itself has undergone technological transformations before, but what’s happening now is different, says Meskó, who also has a Ph.D. in genomics and writes and speaks as “The Medical Futurist.”

With the rise of digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, 3D printing, wearables, and telemedicine, Meskó predicts that the entire structure of health care, as well as the roles of patients and doctors, are poised to “fundamentally shift from the current status quo.”


Denise Silber, who was born in the United States but has spent most of her career working in Europe, is the founder and president of Paris-based Basil Strategies, a digital health-communications consultancy. Silber works with clients that include professional organizations, the pharmaceutical and device industries, technology companies and startups, hospitals, and government agencies. She founded Doctors 2.0. & YOU, an international digital health congress focused on bringing patients and patient perspectives into medical meetings.

Denise Silber

As we talked by phone about how medical associations could think strategically about the future of medical meetings, Silber was doodling, she said, drawing a bull’s-eye with physicians at the center of a series of concentric circles representing all of the things that are changing around them. Among them, she listed the demand for multidisciplinary collaboration, the rise of genomics and it’s potential to cure diseases by modifying genes, and the ways that technology is blurring the lines between medical devices, medicine, and surgery. “And then you have the fact that people no longer need to learn by going to a lecture,” Silber said, “and no longer want to learn by going to a lecture.”

Indeed, she noted, at a conference, attendees are surrounded by thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of papers, and flooded with more information than they could possibly absorb on the spot. Plus, live-streamed sessions and social media can capture much of what is going on, and meeting content — papers, PowerPoints, PDFs, videos — all can be made available online after the fact. “All of medicine is changing, society is changing, and the need to go somewhere to find out something has disappeared,” Silber said. “It looks like you would really have to rethink entirely your value proposition.”

Don Neal agrees. “Many of the reasons that medical conferences and scientific events exist are changing dramatically,” said Neal, founder and CEO of Washington, D.C.–based 360 Live Media, whose clients include medical associations. “You don’t have to go to a live conference anymore to get CME [continuing medical education], which has been the principal reason to come to many medical meetings. The quality of CME and the access and ubiquity of it is, I think, more prevalent than ever.”

Such tech-driven innovation isn’t the only driver of change in medical meetings. In a survey Convene conducted in early June, more than 6o percent of respondents said they thought that the Trump administration’s proposed travel bans had caused negative perception about travel to the United States, while 34 percent said they could link them to a drop in international registrants. According to data released by the U.S. National Travel and Tourism Office and the U.S. Department of Commerce in October, the number of international tourists visiting the United States dropped by nearly 4 percent in the first six months of 2017 over the same period last year.

Additionally, changes in payment authorization, including those mandated by the MedTech Europe Code of Ethical Business Practice, which went into effect on Jan. 1, “will have a huge impact on international travel,” Neal said. One of Neal’s medical-association clients is anticipating a 50-percent decline in the number of international attendees this year.

Beyond all these complicating factors is yet another threat to traditional meetings. The explosive growth in investment in digital medicine — more than $3.5 billion in the United States in the first half of 2017, according to venture-capital fund Rock Health — has fueled new events and new competition for sponsorship dollars. “Health-care event planners will need to change with the times to keep pace with cutting-edge technology shows or risk losing audience and mind share,” according to “The Changing Landscape of Health-Care Events: New Audiences, New Opportunities,” a white paper published by the Healthcare Convention & Exhibitors Association (HCEA) in partnership with FreemanXP. “Many of these new businesses are eschewing traditional association conferences and trade shows to promote their offerings at events known for their early adopter audiences, including a digital health care track at [the Consumer Electronics Show] and SXSW.”


Don Neal

Neal points to one new conference in particular — HLTH, which expects to debut in Las Vegas this May with more than 2,000 attendees and 350 startup and business founders — as being well positioned to disrupt the status quo. 360 Live Media isn’t involved with HLTH in any way, but Neal sees the program as “ an insurgent, disruptive outsider coming into the space with a completely different objective — profit” that will offer attendees “a unique and profoundly different platform.”

The founder of HLTH is Jonathan Weiner, who previously founded the financial-technology conference Money20/20 as well as Shoptalk, which organizes events around retail and e-commerce innovation. The bridge between the three conferences is technology, Neal said, and combining it with innovation and funding. “Money 20/20 brought in venture capitalists, investors, and private-equity money, Neal said, and attendees included “a lot of people looking for money and a lot of people in the financial-services industry who just wanted to be there to figure out what the heck is going on.”

As it was executed, Money20/20 wasn’t dramatically different from a traditional event, with a trade show along with general sessions and breakouts. “It was cooler, it was more relevant and had more swagger, but it was in many ways traditional,” Neal said. “But they convened an audience that in five years went from zero to 10,000 people. It grew very, very quickly. By creating a really attractive nontraditional event, bringing the money and the technology and the investors and startups together, what they did is they created a magnetic appeal for the rest of the industry to come.”

Neal is taking HLTH’s ability to compete for revenue seriously. His company does focus groups with medical-conference exhibitors and sponsors every week. “They have fixed budgets, they have an endless sea of alternatives to spend those budgets on,” Neal said, “and I think HLTH is a good example of one.” Traditional companies might sit out the first year of the conference, “but I think once they see that the startups, the money, and eventually the physicians and the researchers they want are there, they’re going to start spreading their money out differently, and probably to the detriment of traditional associations and societies.”


Does this mean that association medical meetings are in crisis? Attendance and revenue at them vary widely, of course, with many reporting robust delegate numbers and sold-out exhibition space. But “there are a lot of meetings in decline, both in revenue and square footage,” Neal said. “I don’t know if it’s a crisis yet, but it’s on the verge of being a crisis. The largest part of our business these days is medical and scientific associations and societies, because they’re all sharing a very similar pain. I think there’s good news, but I don’t think there’s a lot of time to waste.”

One reason for optimism is that associations’ strengths align with the need for better collaboration and communication among health-care professionals — a growing trend in medical education and clinical environments. “The real reason for physicians and researches and others to get together is for the collaboration — the intentional discussion and adjacencies that they need to solve complex medical problems,” Neal said. “And the greatest asset and defense that association medical-meeting organizers have is the strength of the relationship they have with their members and their audiences.”

To leverage that strength, conferences need to “do a better job of being more intentional in how they design events,” Neal said. “They need to create more intimacy and connection, and move from what I call being a landlord to [being] a curator and a host.” Many medical organizations are already doing that, he added, “but it’s a different mindset than putting on a big event and hoping the people who attend can figure out how to navigate it and connect and experience the event in a way that’s more personal and intimate.”

Associations are in a particularly good position to help create connections. “They know a lot about their members — where they work, what they do, what they care about, how many times they’ve been [to the conference],” Neal said. But “they’re not using that to create the kind of intimacy that I think would be welcomed — not in an invasive, breach-of-privacy fashion, but in a way that’s really valued.”

The old model of events was based on the three C’s: educational content, a trade show for commerce, and community. “What I’m proposing is moving from the three C’s to the three I’s: intimacy, intentionality, and insight,” Neal said. “Medical associations and societies have a committed and loyal audience, and the audience is looking for a more intentional experience and a more intentional way to connect with other people they care about. They’re looking for more intimacy, not a mass gigantic, commercial event.”

Which is not to say that large events can’t be successful. “You don’t have to get smaller to be intimate. You can be very large and still be intimate,” Neal said. “Physically, you can make an event intimate by creating smaller spaces. That may seem obvious, but it doesn’t happen enough. I don’t mean just lounges [where people can gather], but I mean actually creating hundreds of opportunities for intimate connections with seating and partitions and things that associations can afford.”

The Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), for example, has nearly 20,000 attendees and typically sells out its 100,000 square feet of exhibition space each year, said Tim Moses, CMP, AAD’s director of meetings and conventions. But instead of attendees just lining up for product samples, as once happened, many attendees now interact with exhibitors via smaller, more intimate group gatherings and demonstrations. “Exhibitors offer sophisticated, interactive, and engaging learning experiences,” Moses said, “with an emphasis on increasing engagement with the meeting attendees.”

AAD also has held sessions featuring patients who share feedback about their office-visit experiences, as well as input on their medical conditions and treatment. “These sessions are extremely popular, Moses said, “as they lend a sense of a greater reality to the physicians and thus a much greater meeting experience.”

Likewise, according to Meskó, the growth of virtual reality and augmented reality in everyday life will raise the bar for presenters and offer opportunities to include more engaging content. In addition to adding immersive detail, VR and AR could help attendees visualize and understand ideas that are otherwise difficult to grasp. “This is especially important in health care,” Meskó wrote, “where sometimes it is easier to point to a specific area in the human body than describe it.”

At TED2017, held in Vancouver in April, Stanford University neuroscience professor Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D., delivered a talk from the San Francisco offices of Prezi, the presentation software company. It was the first public use of Prezi A.R., and integrated illustrations, photographs, and other graphics into the video. Last year, Brennan Spiegel, M.D., director of health research at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, delivered what is thought to be the first “mixed reality” CME lecture —Spiegel walked around in VR, interacting with the slides and engaging in a conversation about them with another colleague who was live onstage in front of an audience. “I’m convinced this is the future of live stage CME talks,” Spiegel said about the lecture. “VR technology will break down the barriers between teachers and learners.”

AR and VR devices could massively increase the scope of events, Meskó said, “by putting participants in touch with experts and virtual participants from across the globe, enhancing dialogue, collaboration, and the quality of ideas generated.”

Another way for conference organizers to create greater intimacy with their audiences? Speak with a more authentic voice. “Most trade shows and medical conferences are very sterile and very clinical,” Neal said. “I don’t think they speak with the authenticity and the intimacy of a single voice.” By comparison, the marketing of conferences like HLTH and Money 20/20 “is really edgy and fun and quirky and simple and different,” he said. “It’s not trade-show or conference marketing, it’s consumer-oriented marketing. You can be intimate in your communications.”


HLTH, according to its founder, will feature a “big startup pitch contest” and hackathon program that will bring the best developers in the world together to collaborate and compete for funding. “That’s a core reason that HLTH is happening,” Neal said. Many association meetings have added hackathons and pitch fests to their agendas, but “it tends to be like an appendage or an experiment in a zone, or a little area where they are sticking their toe in the water. I think associations are dabbling while the world has already shifted to this new place. So I would say, it’s the structural foundation that has to be changed at meetings, not just rearranging pieces and parts. That’s what I see is the biggest threat, is the incrementalism.”

Of course, it’s human nature to not be able to see the disruptions that are closest to us. “I say that people in organizations only change for one of two reasons: inspiration or desperation. So, most of us don’t change because we’re inspired, we change because something’s wrong or broken.” Declines in meeting attendance and revenue can be “the wakeup call forcing many organizations to scratch their heads and say, ‘I wonder what’s wrong?’” Neal said. “‘The people who come to our events seem happy, the evaluations are good, we haven’t lost a lot of exhibitors. So what’s going on?’”

Test Time

Earn one clock hour of certification credit. Once you’ve finished reading this article, read the following material:

To earn certification clock hours, visit to answer questions about information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material.

The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Events Industry Council.

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.