Patient Meetings are “Business as Unusual”

Imagine this scenario: Paul, who lives with a serious health condition, receives a call from a leading pharmaceutical company to come share his opinions at a live meeting in Florida. Not only is he so flattered and humbled that someone wants to listen to him after he has struggled with his condition for so many years, but now he gets a chance to go to Florida, too! For Paul that’s huge, as he has never been on a plane. Between his health challenges and the financial struggles, it just wasn’t in the cards. “I want to help others,” he finds, and he’s glad this is finally possible on his tight budget because for once his expenses are covered. “I’ll do it, if I can bring my wife. She looks after me.” This request catches the friendly meeting planner off guard—she has to get back to him. Eventually his phone rings, and Paul learns that yes, for once they’ll make an exception and let his wife travel with him. Great, so what’s so hard about patient meetings?

Do They Know That?

The planner puts Paul in touch with their internal travel function. The only problem is, Paul has no idea what they are talking about. “Frequent flier number, no, I don’t think I have that.” Paul is given the best price ticket per company policy, but when he realizes it’s a 5 AM flight, he panics. Mornings aren’t good for people with his condition, and he wonders: “Don’t they know that?” Then he ponders why he wasn’t asked about any other special needs. He requires a service dog! And how are he and his wife going to get to the airport? He doesn’t drive, and they can’t afford long-term parking anyway.

Meanwhile, the industry meeting planner puts things in motion. She has never worked with patients, but given her empathetic personality and her track record of conducting the most buttoned-up national sales meetings and KOL advisory boards, she has no doubt everything will run smoothly. But in managing a patient meeting, there are all these questions around companion travel. What does our legal and regulatory say about that? Now there are all those health documents, MD certifications, honoraria, and expenses to manage, and it looks like about half of our invitees have never flown before. Questions she didn’t think about asking are popping up left and right: “I need oxygen.” “What about my wheelchair?” “How does my service dog travel?”

When Meetings Turn into White Noise

When Paul and his wife check in at the hotel, they wonder: “Are they holding this meeting in a disco?” It’s dark, there’s electronic dance music pumping, and Paul is afraid of becoming disoriented. “It sure is swanky here,” his wife concedes and jokingly adds, “Maybe that’s why the drug is so expensive.” But Paul starts to question if it was wise to sign up for this. Eventually, he gets to meet the other participants. The people from the company and the other patients seem to all be very nice! It’s looking up again. They head over to dinner. When checking what’s been chosen for them, the participants look at each other in disbelief. These are the exact food items our doctors told us to avoid because they are contraindicated. The food goes back to the kitchen and something appropriate is ordered. It takes a long time for the dinner to start, and as he waits, hungry and perplexed, Paul wonders why nobody thought about checking which foods might make him and everyone else sick.

The next day, the sessions start at 9 AM—a little early for Paul and the other patients, especially after dinner kept them up until late. But they want to make this a success—it’s an important cause, so they accommodate. When they discuss the agenda, Paul panics as he hears there will only be two 15-minute breaks plus 30-minutes for lunch until 6 PM. When is he supposed to take his treatment? And don’t all the others struggle with fatigue, too? He pressures himself to keep up, although within an hour, the in-depth presentations start to feel like white noise. There are so many slides—and there’s no interaction with the patients. When Paul is finally asked something, he mumbles a few words of embarrassment—he’s so tired.

Reality over Wow

Somehow Paul manages to stay through the end of the two-day meeting. On a number of occasions he considered going up to his room and telling his wife: “Pack up, we’re leaving.” He didn’t do that. But during the feedback round at the very end of the meeting, he vents, “Honestly, I’m not sure why you guys invited me here,” he says. “Do you know your patients? Has anyone ever talked to a patient before? I’m afraid I couldn’t contribute to the meeting, as there was no time on the agenda for us. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid none of us really got anything out of this.”

The problem is now amplified: A disappointed customer. It becomes obvious there should have been a lot more thought and work put into this meeting before it happened. The bad news is: Experiences like Paul’s are not uncommon. The good news: This is entirely avoidable. The main thing to keep in mind is that patient meetings are not like other business meetings. For one, we cannot get hung up on checklists and guidelines: We can’t assume that doing what we’ve always done just works. We must get it right for patients. For once, we have to prioritize the reality factor over the wow factor: It’s not about impressing anyone; it’s about doing what works best.

Put Business as Usual on Hold

From the first moment an invite goes out to a patient, your meeting planner has to be a high-touch point of contact, dealing with considerations and request that go way beyond booking travels, lodging, and food. Can your internal team do that? Patient meetings are business, but not business as usual. Patients are your most important stakeholders. Take the time out of our busy work schedule and pass the mic to patients. Make it as easy as possible for them to focus on the content of the meeting. Tell your colleagues to put their phones down and listen. It’s not business as usual for the patients, so it shouldn’t be for us, either.

  • Sheri Trotter

    Sheri Trotter is VP, Programs at Snow Companies. Sheri has been Snow Companies’ planning guru for more than a decade and has made a name for herself in organizing and managing events for people with all kinds of different needs.

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