Medical Meetings

How Big Media Does Medical Meetings

With health-care summits booming, we talk to meeting professionals from The Atlantic and The Economist magazines about theirs — and come away with prescriptions for organizers of medical association conferences, from creating a high-level blend of medicine and policy, to leveraging your organization’s brand, to standing out in a crowded marketplace.

‘Care for the Whole Person’ at the Atlantic Health Care Forum.

An unintended consequence of the Affordable Care Act since it was passed three years ago has been the seemingly viral spread of health-care summits. These high-profile events, often sponsored by a media organization or think tank, bring together a mix of policy makers, industry executives, researchers, and journalists for what is usually a one-day discussion spanning the state of the art and the shape of things to come in medical care — from public health and technology to government mandates and patient records.

The Affordable Care Act encompasses all of those topics and more, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the prognosis is so positive for big, ambitious health-care events. “It’s a competitive market space, without a doubt,” said David Cox, senior vice president and chief financial officer for the Americas at the Economist Group, which publishes The Economist magazine, and which on Nov. 12 will present the Economist Health Care Forum 2013 at the Seaport Boston Hotel. “There are probably, I would say, four or five health-care events going on every day somewhere in the U.S.”

They’re not medical meetings per se — no CME credits, no live surgical theaters, no pharma-dominated show floor. But still, they address issues that will affect medical meeting attendees sooner rather than later, and also offer valuable insights and lessons for medical meeting planners. In addition to Cox, we talked to two staff members with AtlanticLIVE, The Atlantic magazine’s events division, which this past May 1 presented the Atlantic Health Care Forum 2013 at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington, D.C — Director of Operations Lyndsay Polloway and Director of Programming and Content Development Suzanne Smalley.

Considered side by side, Cox’s, Polloway’s, and Smalley’s comments about their respective health-care forums suggest the infinite variety of live programming. Because while The Atlantic’s and The Economists health-care forums on the surface might seem quite similar, in planning and in practice each is its own unique experience.

The Economist‘s Healthcare in Asia summit, held in Malaysia this past March.


Economist/David Cox We run a number of health-care events around the world, but given all the changes going on in the health-care system [in the United States], and particularly around the Affordable Care Act, this is going to be our first event that we’re running here in the U.S. We are expecting somewhere over 200 senior-level executives from a broad range of health-care organizations, be it hospitals, insurance companies — anybody really who is impacted by the new legislation.

Atlantic/Lyndsay Polloway We do about 10 D.C. policy summits across the year, on sort of topical/vertical [subjects], such as energy, education, technology, and then, in this case, health care. Our Health Care Forum this year was the fifth annual time we have hosted it. It’s really been successful for us, year over year. The program has grown in scale, in audience, in general support, and just kind of the impact it is making in the D.C. policy community and more broadly. This year, we had roughly 200 guests join us across the full day of programming. They come from across the board in the same way that the magazine itself appeals to a wide range of readers. So, in our audiences we’re not just gathering practitioners, we’re not just gathering academics. We’re gathering those two groups along with high-level media and industry leaders and advocacy folks and individuals from the consulting and legal profession.


Economist/Cox We’re running it in Boston mainly as a result of the fact that, in terms of innovative thinking, Massachusetts — and Boston in particular — is the hub of that sort of thought leadership around health care as a whole.

Atlantic/Suzanne Smalley The Atlantic is based in Washington, and much of what we cover — while not exclusively focused on policy in Washington — we are very interested in the major issues of the day. So it makes sense for us to host our biggest intelligence series forums, which are focused on major bread-and-butter policy issues, in the capital.


Economist/Cox In terms of takeaway, I think [we want attendees to leave with] an understanding and some sort of different views and angles on the Affordable Care Act. Clearly there is an enormous amount of legislation, an enormous amount of moving parts to the act, and what we hope is that the attendee comes away with a synthesized and clear understanding of how the act will impact them and their organizations and what they can do about it. And at the same time, [we want to] provide them with some insight into what the future may look like and what sort of strategies and actions they may want to implement going forward.

Atlantic/Polloway For us, we think about our team — AtlanticLIVE — as truly being an extension of the editorial brand. The editorial brand manifests itself in the print magazine certainly, on our digital properties, and then lastly in live conversation. So that is certainly our objective in any event that we’re producing.

Atlantic/Smalley We are an extension of The Atlantic editorial magazine and website, and so our editorial identity is very much around being ahead of the curve, very smart on the issues, telling people something they don’t know. So we try to do the same thing in our programs, bringing together fresh viewpoints, case studies.


Economist/Cox The challenge is that I think health care is, from an events perspective, a crowded space. Certainly in the US., there are many health-care events that take place every day. For us, the challenge here is finding our niche, and I think the particular niche that The Economist plays well in is this whole area between public policy and private sector. And that’s what we’ve sort of built the program around. And I think also what we’re very good at as an organization is being able to take very complex industry structures and synthesize them and summarize them into a sort of one-stop-shop approach.

Atlantic/Polloway This is the fifth year that we did the program, and we always challenge ourselves to make sure the content is fresh, that we are bringing a new debate to the table, that we are engaging new voices, as opposed to continuing the same dialogue. There are threads and themes that are going to weave in and we’re going to want to parallel on year over year. But we certainly wouldn’t be doing our job well if we were just repeating the previous year’s conversation.


Economist/Cox This is where The Economist really sort of plays to its strength. We write a lot about health care, particularly around the interface between health-care policy and the provision of health-care services, so this really plays to our strength. We see health care as one of the big strategic industries [that] we are looking at. We have made some acquisitions of health-care information companies over the course of the last couple of years, and so we will be working with them on this event, too. It’s going to be a broad-reaching program, and we will be looking at areas such as payment reform. We’ll be looking at this whole new area of [private health-insurance] exchanges, which is clearly a big issue and something [that] I know a lot of organizations are looking at.

Atlantic/Smalley It’s creating a program that is compelling and has a mix of voices talking about wonky issues, like how the Affordable Care Act might change the health-care landscape, but also talking about new technologies and interesting ideas and individual innovators in the health-care field. I have a large staff working with me on content. We do a lot of research on what the major issues of the day are — what we think will prove valuable and interesting and substantive to an audience of top D.C. policy makers and other stakeholders in the health-care conversation.

But then, we also look into things that haven’t been talked about as much, that might be new information or just give people access to an up-and-coming talent. I’m thinking, not at this year’s forum, but the prior year, where we had the CEO of PatientsLikeMe, which a lot of people in Washington hadn’t heard of. It turns out this guy has a great story, a really inspiring story. His brother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)], and he started a company that aggregates patient records and patient information. It’s totally voluntary, obviously, but for a disease that rare, it can be an incredible thing for patients to be able to unite via the web with every other patient out there who has ALS. They’re mining these records for patterns to see what they might be able to find in terms of commonalities and how that might inform ALS research. Bringing him down from Boston, which is where he’s based, was of great interest to a lot of the D.C. health establishment, who mainly had heard about him in passing or read about PatientsLikeMe, like I had. But to have him on stage, giving a 45-minute presentation about his work, was really wonderful.


Economist/Cox We have Ralph de la Torre from Steward Health Care System talking about payment reform. And then, particularly, the area where we can bring our global expertise to play is the space around evidence-based medicine. We have a company which we own in the U.K. called Bazian, and Bazian does a lot of work for the National Health Service in terms of looking at this whole area of evidence-based medicine, or perhaps better called value-based medicine, and so we’re going to be bringing somebody over from Bazian to talk about that, because this is obviously quite a political issue here in the U.S. How far do you go with treating people, and how much does it cost to treat people?

We’re also going to be looking at retail. One of the interesting things that we see in the marketplace is that many of the large national retail chains are getting into health care as well. They see opportunity in getting in on the act to provide local health-care services for people who perhaps are afraid to go to hospitals or doctors. We’re calling that particular session “Blood Samples and Bar Soap.” It’s really around companies like CVS, Walmart, [and] Safeway. And that’s quite an interesting development in the market. How far can they push that?

We’re going to be covering liability. One of the things that does drive health-care costs is professional indemnity insurance and the whole area around that, so we’re going to be looking at that as part of the program. Another session will be on big data. Clearly, a lot of the organizations — [such as] hospitals — see big data as a way of being able to manage their customers and manage their patients. And so we’re going to have the chief information officer of the Cleveland Clinic talking, and also the founder and executive vice president of GNS Healthcare.

We’ll finish with a couple of sessions — one looking at the patient’s journey, which is taking health care and looking at it slightly differently in terms of, what will the hospital of the future look like from a design perspective? And then the final session will be a future review – the re-imagination of the business. What’s health care going to look like? What will this business look like in the U.S. in, say, five years’ time, 10 years’ time, and what impact do we think the Affordable Care Act will have on that?

Atlantic/Smalley We did a case study with [Jeff Arnold,] the CEO of Sharecare, talking about a project they’re doing with the U.S. Army and comprehensive soldier fitness. He’s a former CEO of WebMD. That was a new and fresh voice.

But then we also had the inside-Washington voices with a lot of data at their fingertips, a lot of expertise, like Kavita Patel, who is the director of the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform at the Brookings Institution. We had a director of the National Institute of Mental Health. And we had other important establishment and government voices on what’s going on in health care.

This year we happened to have had a cover story [in the magazine] that Jonathan Cohn, who’s the author of a big book on the health-care crisis, wrote about the future of medicine. It was actually titled “The Robot Will See You Now” — a lot of technology and robotics and that sort of thing. So we had Jonathan come and lead a conversation [at Health Care Forum 2013] with Ari Caroline, who was mentioned in his story as the director of quantitative analysis at Memorial Sloan-Kettering [Cancer Center in New York City]. So that was a really lucky break for us that the timing worked out and we were able to showcase such an interesting initiative that has recently been featured on the cover of the magazine. That doesn’t always happen, but when we can extend like that it’s a nice opportunity.


Economist/Cox Our programs really are geared toward what we call the ideas people. In the broader sense of the word, what our business is about is discussing and disseminating ideas for the future. [Economist health-care correspondent] Charlotte Howard will be chairing the [Health Care Forum] along with some of the colleagues from the Economist Intelligence Unit [EIU], such as Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau [EIU’s director for industry publishing, analysis, and data], and our colleagues from the company that we own in Europe. That one in particular, which is Bazian, will play an active role throughout the day in generating debate and discussion. I think that’s something that The Economist does well. We’re provocative in our approach. We’re not shrinking violets. We’ll challenge and we’ll push, and we’ll make sure that we leave no stone unturned.

Atlantic/Smalley The most paramount thing that is always in my mind is that we are an editorial extension of the magazine, and we always need to ensure that everything you put on stage is worthy of that brand name and diversity of perspectives and really compelling and substantive content that would have a place in the magazine itself — even if it doesn’t always naturally happen that we have a story that we’re able to bring to life, so to speak, in the event as we did with the Jonathan Cohn piece. Beyond that, our editors moderate many of the discussions. We certainly look to them for their expertise in terms of recommending speakers or ideas that we should think about.

We definitely want to have The Atlantic brand be consistent across platforms. We see ourselves as a really, truly 21st-century cutting-edge, forward-looking media property, with our robust online coverage, our live coverage. The general brand identity of The Atlantic is policy but broader – to the larger culture, what the future holds. You know, having a mix of writers like [Atlantic senior editor] Alexis Madrigal and then [national correspondents] James Fallows and Jeff Goldberg, who all have different specialties but really all are known for being kind of ahead of the curve. We just try to be true to that brand identity and bring The Atlantic spirit and editorial mission into life on stage.


Economist/Cox We have a database here, across the groups, whether it’s The Economist magazine, whether it’s the Economist Intelligence Unit or some of our more specialist business — clearly we have a number of health-care providers and health-care companies as clients. And so we tend to survey them at the outset [of planning an event]. We put a draft program together, and then what we do is put it around, perhaps to some of our more loyal customers, for their input and thoughts on the program itself. We use our editorial staff internally to be able to generate ideas, and we also use thought leaders from the industry. So we’re building a program really from the bottom up, if you like, so that we know that it resonates and is relevant for the target audience that we’re dealing with. And this is no different than any other event we run, because there are so many health-care events, you want to be sure that you’re really hitting the mark in terms of what the paying delegate wants to come and hear.

Atlantic/Polloway I think that for us it’s not so much a critique of this year as it is a challenge to ourselves to constantly be innovating and be thinking about new topics, new formats, new ways to execute programs that keep us ahead of the curve. [Attendee feedback has been] positive, definitely. That’s why we keep doing the event year over year, because it’s been so successful and it’s been so well received by all the various stakeholders.


Economist/Cox We’re already thinking about next year. Clearly, it’ll be a different landscape, and the Affordable Care Act one year on will be an interesting discussion. But there are clearly lots of different angles. The thing about health care is that it’s a broad subject, and I think our brand gives us an opportunity to be able to look at certain elements of health care. We’ve chosen the Affordable Care Act this year, but then there is the whole issue around pharmaceuticals and bioscience, which is another interesting topic [that] fits into the health-care space. There is more around hospital administration and hospital management and health-care management, which is another angle we could take. Then there’s innovation within drug discovery and things like that. It gives a lot of scope to be able to tweak it from year to year, to be able to find out what’s hot in the market at that particular time.

Atlantic/Smalley We do really a tremendous number of [live events] annually. This is a spring forum, [and] we tend to execute them on a 12-week cycle. So certainly I’m thinking about [next year’s Health Care Forum] in broad strokes and making sure I’m keeping up with my reading and trends and interesting new devices, and just current events in health care. But beyond that, we’re not too engaged just yet.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.