Part 1: “COVID Slowed Things Down, But It Hasn’t Stopped Innovation in CME”— Summary of the August 2020 MEC Member Section Discussion and Panel

By Caroline O. Pardo, Allison Kickel and Brittany Puster

In August 2020, the Medical Education Companies (MEC) Member Section held a webinar that was aimed at addressing key questions that had been prioritized by MEC members, as assessed through a recent email poll, as important topics related to the impacts of COVID-19 on the independent medical education (IME) landscape.

The original impetus for the webinar was the emergence of policy statements by several commercial organizations regarding restrictions on support for live education in the near term. As a result, a panel of five IME leaders from commercial organizations was convened to address how the shift to virtual educational programming is impacting IME planning for 2020-2021 medical education strategies. The esteemed panel consisted of:

  • Cody Ortmann, Takeda
  • Steve Gallagher, Janssen Biotech Inc.
  • Shunda Irons-Brown, Novo Nordisk
  • Sue McGuinness, AstraZeneca
  • Anthia Mandarakas, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals

In an effort to extend the webinar topics as a valuable learning resource for the entire Alliance community, this Part 1 article summarizes the rich panel discussion, with our Part 2 article next week outlining outcomes.

Live vs. Virtual Shifts Within Organizational Policies

Some organizations proactively disseminated policy updates describing how IME decision making would be impacted by COVID-19 challenges.

Takeda, for example, stated that the organization would not support IME that is delivered as live, in-person events, at least through March 2021. The aim of this decision was to support the health and wellbeing not only of their employees but also of the patients, caregivers and communities they serve to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, per Cody Ortmann [CO].

Steve Gallagher [SG] stated that at the time COVID-19 hit, the vast majority of his organization’s supported programs were live, and those programs then largely shifted to being delivering virtually, with positive results: "[The] switch to virtual has been very successful so far.”

Anthia Mandarakas [AM] added that, from her experience, taking a proactive approach to managing changes of scope increased efficiency and was effective as initiatives transitioned to distance-based platforms. She commented that transparency during this process was key to smooth and positive transitions.

Similarly, in the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Novo Nordisk IME staff proactively reached out to medical education providers who had programs in progress to let them know about their change of scope process, per Shunda Irons Brown [SIB]. 

Expectations for Commercially Supported Live, In-Person IME in 2021

When asked about the potential for supporting live, in-person IME in 2021, the supporter panel largely agreed that there may be a consideration for in-person events in 2021. Support for local and regional activities may be more likely than larger, national conferences, based, in part, on the review of data of learner preferences.

Irons Brown commented: “June 2021 might be the new goal post.” An expansive discussion ensued on the transition from live, in-person programs to fully virtual (live and asynchronous) education that many MECs are demonstrating. Sue McGuinness [SM] stated that the early period of the COVID-19-related switch to virtual education was “a learning opportunity for supporters and education providers,” echoing similar comments from Gallagher. The community, at large, demonstrated they were “rising to the challenge” [AM] in this period of rapid change. With six months under our belts, the panelists furthered that, the community, as a whole, is moving to a different stage in which there will be increasing expectations that IME will provide or simulate the aspects of in-person programming that are valuable to learners, such as networking and engagement, perhaps through hybrid models and innovative virtual learning designs.

Uniformly, the panelists agreed that it is most important that any proposed IME program should feature a learning design that aligns a suggested format to most effectively address the independently identified gaps and root causes of the gaps identified, with a focus on the needs and preferences of a specified audience of learners.

Show Me the Money (or the Cost of Virtual IME) 

A perennially important topic, the panelists were asked questions on the budget impact of the shift to virtual IME programs, including those programs that had already been awarded commercial support prior to March 2020. The supporters reiterated, generally, that established processes of reconciling actual expenses at the end of a program will continue to be the primary process by which budget impacts of any implemented IME program would be managed. However, the supporters also affirmed that it is important for providers to demonstrate the rationale for why any costs would increase, in a shift to a virtual delivery, and that communication and transparency between providers and the supporters of IME programs are critical, especially when programs undergo a change of scope.

Making the Pivot to Planning for 2021

In response to a question on how the supporters are pivoting in their planning for 2021, the panelists stated that it is critical to plan around “today’s normal” [SM] and to learn from data to date on what healthcare professional learners will need and seek, as well as anticipate what the environmental landscape (eg, healthcare, policy, patient, professional) may hold. Some considerations include the faculty’s inability or choice not to travel to deliver in-person education, a situation that is likely to persist into 2021.

The supporters voiced that they have seen strong examples of well-designed and executed virtual programs this year, and MEC providers will need to continue to learn and evolve to ensure IME activities address learner needs [AM].

There was caution that some learners may experience “Zoom fatigue,” or an overload of online content or virtual demands, making it more important for providers to innovate, and to ensure their education is designed to target specific gaps with concise, effective and engaging education design.

Moving forward, “older formats may have a new utility now,” such as podcasts, and MECs should consider the effectiveness of format to meet emerging and shifting learning needs. [CO]. Importantly, the panelists reiterated that it is crucial to receive updates on data and insights on learnings from virtually delivered education, to ensure they are making decisions that are aligned with best practices and are equipped to support effective virtual education.

The supporters furthered that this is a prime time for IME to shine: “IME is [a critical mechanism] to get data out” [SIB] quickly to clinicians, and MECs should take full advantage of this opportunity to showcase their reach and impact. Some panelists indicated that they have seen moderate increases in their IME budgets during 2020. And, the supporters challenged the MEC audience to continue to evolve learning design and educational programming in 2021: “[this is] a tremendous opportunity to drive forward in innovation” [CO].

Check back next week on the Almanac to read Part 2 of this summary, where you'll learn how the panelists responded to the relative importance of IME program outcomes to demonstrate the impact of education. That is, are outcomes more important now? 

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