Part 2: “COVID Slowed Things Down, But It Hasn’t Stopped Innovation in CME”— Outcomes from 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 [CO]
  • Steve Gallagher, Janssen Biotech Inc. [SG]
  • Shunda Irons-Brown, Novo Nordisk [SIB]
  • Sue McGuinness, AstraZeneca [SM]
  • Anthia Mandarakas, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals [AM]

In an effort to extend the webinar topics as a valuable learning resource for the entire Alliance community, this Part 2 article outlines outcomes. You can read Part 1 here.

Outcomes Are Critical

The panelists were asked to respond to the relative importance of IME program outcomes to demonstrate the impact of education — that is, are outcomes more important now?

The supporters engaged in a robust dialogue on the value of outcomes, particularly now, as a source of insight on how healthcare professionals are seeking information and education in this current period of time, as well as a demonstration of the “merit of the activity” and of learners’ engagement in virtual IME, that they can share with their organizations [SIB].

For multi-year activities, supporters “want to see outcomes for activities that bridge 2019 to now” [SM] to see the impact of COVID-19 on learner participation and impact. Furthermore, the supporters affirmed that what is most important, in the outcomes they receive is “the meaning behind the numbers” [AM], which is not necessarily unique to the COVID-19 era.

Outcomes should demonstrate the impact of education, to help assess effectiveness relative to “overall goals for transferring impact on patient care” and ensuring clinicians are “clinically equipped to interpret data” [AM].

In addition, the supporters affirmed that the shift to virtual may enable additional avenues to collect data, such as through polling within live programs and captured metrics on the time learners engage in virtual content. Providers “don’t have to wait to the end of a program to capture data” [SIB] within virtual programs, as newer technologies enable the collection and analysis of learner data that is valuable to assess educational impact, which the supporters agreed they value receiving.  

Final Thoughts

As great conversations sometimes go, the planned hour ended, and we had not addressed all of the questions from the participants. The supporter panel graciously contributed additional time to address the remaining questions, and the following is a summary of those points:

  • “The value of CME is amplified because of the industry’s ability to pivot and continue to provide much-needed and sought-after education despite face-to-face/travel restrictions” [AM]. The panel concurred that certified education may be even more of a crucial information and skills lifeline for HCPs during this time, when live, in-person meetings are not possible.
  • “… Clinicians are seeking CME, therefore a high-quality, clinically-relevant, well-marketed program (via email and many different social, medical and professional outlets) should yield a respectable number of learners/completers” [SM]. In response to the question of whether there should be consideration for potentially higher costs of digital marketing to drive HCP learner participation, when there is a greater number of online education options, the supporter panel indicated that program goals and budgets should align with the objectives of the education. “It may be less about what was expected pre-COVID, and more about what my expectation as the supporter is from the details in the grant submitted” [CO]. And, supporters are seeing an impact on educational plans, due to the need to reach virtual audiences: “… providers [are] convert[ing] logistical line items into the development of additional recruitment efforts and/or technological support — with most budgets remaining flat” [AM]. “Most CME marketing programs include email communications regardless if is live in-person or online” [SIB].
  • “I have seen greater incorporation of social media platforms, and there are published data that confirm that patients are seeking clinical diagnoses and/or treatment advice from online communities/other resources” [AM]. The supporter panel indicated that there is some movement toward greater incorporation of social media platforms (eg, Facebook, Twitter) to reach learners and educate audiences. Further research is needed to determine if learners engage differently with these formats than seen among traditional online activities.
  • In response to questions on whether the challenges of delivering education in 2020 have impacted organizational expectations for learner participation, the supporter panel generally agreed that the “expectations have not changed” [SM]. The majority of the panel agreed that they have seen an increase in the number of learners/attendees in virtual activities across a range of therapeutic areas. Too, priorities remain unchanged, to ensure that the expectations described within grant submissions are met and shared with commercial supporters: “I think the value of metrics and communication of insights/learner preferences and behavior during this time is highly valued” [AM].
  • The supporter panel also provided several insights in response to questions related to the process of grant consideration of multi-supported program/initiatives and how that may be impacted by COVID-19:
    • Though there have been increases in change of scope (COS) requests as live (in-person) education programs were modified, with the passage of time, there have not been across-the-board changes in the organizational processes for COS considerations: “A COS decision [for a single supported grant] is the same in theory as a potential decision on a multi-support grant. We make all of our supporter decisions independently as our internal needs vary” [CO]. Most agreed that COS’s are “navigated on an individual basis” [AM].
    • Supporters recognize that faculty — not just learners — are impacted by the “no travel” policies across the United States: “… some academic medical centers are restricting their faculty from travel until they are vaccinated against COVID-19” [SM] and “faculty may only be able to travel locally/regionally” [SM] at least until later in 2021. Further, their policies on restrictions on in-person education reflect this reality: “Just because a faculty member can get to the live program, doesn’t mean learners will, or can, and vice versa” [CO].
    • Supporters overall agree that the aims of proposed education should dictate the rationale for the learning format, but they are also required to make decisions that are aligned with their organizational policies for supporting live vs. online education. “In-person education activities would not be allowed due to current pandemic guidelines; all programs must be virtual for remainder of 2020 or until further notice” [SG]. “The approach should be guided by data (eg, regional/local preferences and guidances) and should include a rationale for ‘live’ (in-person or virtual) that is consistent with the overall educational goals and design of the initiative” [AM].
  • In response to a question on whether the supporter panelists are seeing innovation during this period, rather than the “same old, same old,” the supporters generally affirmed that they are prioritizing innovative approaches.
    • “I am expecting our industry and the requests I receive to be evolving/learning with the environment (healthcare, public, policy), bringing in new/different perspectives and building on learnings from the past” [SM].
    • “This is a time for CME community to step their game up and take advantage of a challenging time in the world ... totally expect more innovation than ever before” [SG].
    • “I expect the requests to continue to be stellar and evolve. COVID slowed things down, and that’s ok, but it hasn’t stopped innovation in CME. Rather, I think it’s caused an acceleration of it” [CO].
    • “Instructional designs that are impactful online/virtually and continue to be impactful, will continue to be prioritized. However, there is also a greater need to accelerate our thinking about how best to address needs (both familiar and new due to pandemic conditions) in new ways” [AM].
    • “Providers will need to demonstrate their value even more now because the number of online proposals has increased. There is more competition in the virtual space. Only the best of the best will be supported” [SIB].
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