Richard Baker, ISMPP CMPP™, BSc (Hons), Novartis, Basel, Switzerland; Katherine Baria, BSc (ARCS), PhD, AstraZeneca, Gaithersburg, MD, USA; Claire Bartlett, ISMPP CMPP™, BA (Hons), CMC Connect, McCann Health Medical Communications, Macclesfield, UK; Johanna Dixon, ISMPP CMPP™, BSc (Hons), CMC Connect, McCann Health Medical Communications, Macclesfield, UK; Belinda Dean, ISMPP CMPP™, BSc (Hons), CMC Connect, McCann Health Medical Communications, Macclesfield, UK

When writing The MAP article, Advisory Boards: Words of Advice and a 10-point Checklist,” released in March 2020, we could not have predicted the era of unprecedented change that was to come. Many pharmaceutical companies had already been reaping the benefits of fully virtual advisory boards pre-COVID-19, but the necessity to move all meetings to a fully online format required a significant shift in strategy and mindset.

Some key questions have emerged as a result and, in this article, the authors seek to provide answers through the sharing of experience and practical tips.

Q1: Do the advantages of virtual advisory boards outweigh the challenges?

There are certainly some key advantages, as well as some challenges, with virtual advisory boards (see Figure below) and being aware of both will enable us to hold increasingly engaging meetings that are mindful of the needs of both sponsor companies and expert advisors.

Managing time zones

Identifying a suitable time slot for a global faculty can prove challenging – this graphic illustrates which time zones you can convene at the same time, starting at 6 am on the West Coast of the United States stretching to 9/10 pm in East Asia. You may choose to group the regions as shown in the figure (The Americas and EMEA, Asia and APAC, separately) or, alternatively, you could group The Americas with APAC, holding the advisory board in the evening for the East Coast of the United States, which would be early morning for APAC.

Q2: How have advisory boards evolved so far?

Virtual advisory boards are nothing new. However, we’re seeing less “show and tell” advisory boards and more meetings with enhanced interaction and conversation.

In these days of “virtual fatigue,” advisory boards must better engage the faculty and increase opportunities for input. One way of doing that is through “perpetual” advisory boards (also known as asynchronous or discontinuous advisory boards). These are increasingly used for information gathering both before and after the “live” virtual meeting. They allow advisors to participate at whatever time is most convenient for them, giving them more opportunity to evaluate their feedback.

An effective moderator is key to keeping everyone engaged and contributing over the duration of the engagement, or you could see discussion dry up. It can be challenging to estimate how much input an individual expert will make, so bear in mind compliance and reimbursement requirements that need to be met.

There are many vendors of “perpetual” advisory board platforms and online meeting tools. Attendees are becoming more familiar with the technology, but rehearsal and use of a technical expert organizer are important to ensuring everything runs smoothly. Interactivity should enhance, not distract from, the objectives of the meeting.

Q3: What might virtual advisory boards look like in the future?

A number of trends are pointing to a new landscape for future advisory boards:

  • The impact of COVID-19 will continue for some time, and travel restrictions are likely to impact different geographies at varying degrees.
  • Digital advisory boards have several advantages, so they are not going away.
  • We’re no longer as tied to a congress for the timing of an advisory board, given that physicians are often attending congresses virtually; however, face-to-face is still a valued format to promote increased relationship building and in-depth dialogue.
  • Sponsor companies have realized the cost savings during the pandemic and may be more selective in the approval of face-to-face engagements in the future.
  • We’re seeing a shift toward working with more digitally aware advisors, who are keener to engage with new formats; this includes a greater use of social media, such as for disease education purposes.

This is all pointing to the fact that the future will be hybrid. This is not a new concept, of course; meetings with both live and virtual attendance options have become commonplace due to COVID-19. However, they invariably sacrifice the user experience for one or both attendee types in a well-intentioned but clunky attempt at integration. Since hybrid meetings are likely here to stay, the future will require development of improved meeting formats that facilitate more effective interaction.

Practical tips for the present

What can we do now to make hybrid meetings better? Rather than trying to merge face-to-face and virtual attendance into a single experience, we should play to the strengths of each format and try to minimize the frustration that can occur when people feel “left out”:

  • It’s important to keep the structure of hybrid meetings simple, to minimize technical challenges.
  • Consider inviting only local advisors to attend a local face-to-face meeting, with experts from outside the country inputting virtually, helping to minimize travel and time away from their clinical duties.
  • Where meetings are face-to-face, it’s important to make the most of the environment with work mats, dynamic discussions, and breakout groups. Advisors attending online should have the ability to participate in a different way, for example using interactive whiteboard software.
  • Invite feedback via circulation of the minutes/a recording of the face-to-face meeting, or open the discussion via a perpetual advisory board format.
  • Consider a series of smaller roundtables to give everyone the opportunity to interact.

Q4. What practical tips do you have for running a successful virtual advisory board?

Advisory boards are still useful for facilitating insightful discussions between advisors that may inform client strategy, so the tips provided in our previous article remain pertinent; however, several practical pointers unique to the virtual format may be of value. We hope that the following list of tips proves useful for your meetings:

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