Virtual EULAR Congress Aims for Patient-Inclusive Programming

Tara Haelle

June 01, 2021

Although clinicians and researchers dominate attendance at medical conferences, patients have always been welcome at many such meetings. The movement of most conferences to an online format during the pandemic has greatly increased access of patients who may not have been able to travel or afford to attend past meetings. In planning for the upcoming virtual European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology (EULAR) 2021 Annual Meeting, the scientific program committee took that into account, particularly after the attendance by patients last year, according to Loreto Carmona, MD, PhD, chair of the EULAR scientific program committee and scientific director of the Institute for Musculoskeletal Health, in Madrid, Spain. Despite having only 3 months to switch from an in-person meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, to an entirely online format, more than 20,000 people, including patients, attended last year, she said.

Dr Loreto Carmona

"It was incredible. We've never had such a patient community engage in a congress like we did last year, and we expect the same this year," Carmona told Medscape Medical News. That engagement played a role in inspiring her biggest goal at this year's meeting, to ensure representation of the four EULAR pillars: scientists, rheumatologists, health professionals who are not rheumatologists (such as nurses, physician assistants, therapists, and others), and patients.

"I wanted to make a Congress in which all these communities will mix," Carmona said. She thinks this year's EULAR meeting could be the largest ever. The planning committee took care to incorporate feedback and other lessons from the first all-virtual conference in 2020. What people most appreciated, she said, was that they could move from room to room easily without having to wander around a large convention center and how easily they could navigate the abstract posters. The biggest drawback, unsurprisingly, was the lack of interaction among attendees.

"It was very difficult to put an interactive system in place in 3 months from scratch," Carmona said. They worked hard to provide plenty of opportunities for interaction this year, including a feature that allows attendees to tap their profile and seek out people who share their research interests. In addition, Carmona is particularly looking forward to several sessions that use an interactive format that was less common at previous meetings: debates.

"Debates are always very interesting, and people like to see different positions and to defend them," Carmona said. As part of the enhanced interactivity this year, attendees will also be able to vote on what they think about the debate questions before and after the debates.

One debate focuses on the extent to which patient-reported outcomes should be involved in research. Another centers on publication ethics and scientific conduct. The third arises from one of the many ways the pandemic has affected rheumatic practice: remote care.

"We have our community divided into those who love it and others who say, 'No, this is impossible. We cannot work like this,' " Carmona said. Although some research will certainly focus on what scientists have learned over the past year about COVID-19, the vaccines, and rheumatic disease — including what little data exist on the effectiveness of the vaccines for patients receiving immune-suppressing therapies — evidence is also building regarding the challenges and benefits of telehealth.

Dr Annette de Thurah

In a session presented by Annette de Thurah, PhD, MPH, an associate professor at the Aarhus University Hospital, in Aarhus, Denmark, for example, attendees will hear what worked, what did not work, and where the field needs more data when it comes to virtual rheumatic care. De Thurah will present findings from a systematic review related to the evidence for remote care in rheumatology and discuss strategies for overcoming some of its challenges, such as clinical examination of rheumatic disease and choosing the best tools for patient-reported symptoms.

"Sometimes it can be very difficult for patients to distinguish between, for example, a flare of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis in their hands," de Thurah told Medscape Medical News. The success of virtual care in practices throughout Europe will also depend on what works best for the clinician and, especially, the patient's preferences and experience. Some, for example, may worry about what they might miss when a patient is not physically present in the clinic.

"The communication is different when you have people in front of you," de Thurah said. "It is not a one-size-fits-all thing, of course, and I think it should be based on patients' desire."

Carmona also emphasized that, as in past years and despite the virtual format, EULAR will offer sessions on practical skills, such as workshops on reading MRIs or creating good posters. In short, she emphasized that no matter who attends, she expects each will find something worthwhile at the conference.

"Whether you are a scientist or a patient or a health professional," Carmona said, "you will find something interesting, because we try to make all the sessions very cross-sectional."

Carmona and de Thurah report no relevant financial relationships.

European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology (EULAR) 2021 Annual Meeting.

Tara Haelle is an independent science journalist based in Texas who writes about medical research. Find her at @tarahaelle.

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