Hot topics in medical communications: highlights of the ISMPP 2020 annual meeting

Hot topics in medical communications Highlights of the ISMPP 2020 annual meeting

Kudos to the organisers of this year’s ISMPP annual meeting, who pulled out all the stops to deliver a fully virtual meeting at short notice, ably mixing live presentations with pre-recorded on-demand sessions, and even managing some lively round table discussions using the seamless breakout functionality in Zoom.

As always, a few key themes took centre stage, so here’s a run-down of the hot topics of the meeting.

Open access and transparency

Niamh O’Connor (Chief Publication Officer, PLOS) shared data showing that the majority of Americans state that they are more likely to trust research when the associated data is openly available (e.g. in a repository) and less likely when it is industry-sponsored, highlighting the importance of transparency and understanding of conflict of interest information.

She went on to outline the steps the PLOS family of journals take around transparency and open science. These include encouraging authors to make data available via data availability statements and deposit protocols on the PLOS website. There is also an option to publish registered reports – authors submit study design and research questions for peer review before the research is done; they then receive provisional acceptance from the journal, and results will be published whether positive or negative. Finally, PLOS will publish the full peer-review process if authors opt in, with 56% of authors who publish in PLOS medicine currently choosing this option.

Corrine Williams, Senior Science Editor at JCI Insight, discussed the measures that the Journal of Clinical Investigation family of journals take to ensure that publications are transparent and reproducible. This includes a requirement for detailed methodology and original, unedited images to be included in the publication itself, and authors are encouraged to make large datasets available in repositories. The journal conducted a study in which they screened 200 papers published between 2018 and 2019 for data manipulation and found that 28.5% had used inappropriate statistical methods and 27.5% had issues with data manipulation, 3.6% of which resulted in rejection and reporting to the host institute.

Submissions to pre-print servers, including BioRxiv, are increasing over time; this is a good way for individuals to receive credit for early research data, and also to ensure that results are made publicly available without the need for journal acceptance.

Finally, we were reminded that researchers with limited funds are at a disadvantage when it comes to publishing; we need to work towards equity and inclusion to ensure greater access to information.


Making the science accessible

Several sessions looked at how we can better communicate our data to both professional and lay audiences in this era of information overload, whether by carefully tailoring our content to the key audiences and channels, or by making use of evolving digital forms of communication.

The format for academic posters has remained highly similar across most Life Sciences disciplines for several decades, but we now have an opportunity to rethink this. Attendees decide which poster to interact with based on ‘interaction cost’, particularly when faced with many posters to choose from but very little time. At first glance, many poster designs lead to a high effort for interaction and low initial interest, which makes attendees less likely to stop and engage with a poster. Options for reducing interaction cost include: using clear and concise titles to allow potential viewers to quickly assess whether the poster topic is of value to them; alternative poster layouts that give the key visuals and elements more space on the poster, instead of hiding them away; and using enhanced posters to provide additional information via QR codes or clickable links to those who might be interested, without taking up valuable poster space. Interactive elements within posters can also help to engage the audience, particularly in a virtual setting. We were pleased to support Pfizer in developing interactive versions of their award-winning posters on Plain Language Summaries and Open Access, which were presented at the meeting.

Publishers are increasingly promoting the use of additional content to support medical publications. Graphical abstracts depicting the main findings of a study are engaging and can easily be shared on social media, and short (<5 mins) video abstracts can also get your key message across if designed to be succinct and focused on the ‘so what’ of the data. Videos featuring the researchers themselves have been shown to be particularly engaging. Some publishers are even advocating the use of fully digital articles, either audio or video, with the transcript provided as supplementary material.


Patient involvement in medical communications

Communication to patients should be a core consideration throughout the drug development process. From the start of a clinical trial up to the publication of results, publication professionals should use strategies that can help to effectively make patient-facing materials clear for people with different academic backgrounds, cultures and literacy/numeracy. Clear designs, plain language and an understanding of cultural differences are essential to tailor communications messages to the target audience.

It is generally recognised that one of the ongoing barriers to effective use of Plain Language Summaries for publications is how to raise awareness of these with the patient community. PubMed has now made text-only plain language summaries available alongside the abstracts when these are supplied by the publisher; however, much is still to be done to effectively reach the intended audience.

As well as simply communicating to patients, the role of patients in developing medical communications was also discussed. Patient involvement in medical communications provides valuable insight to pharmaceutical companies, is beneficial for patients and builds the reputation of medical communications agencies as patient-centric organisations. Social media is a good way to identify patients, with several relevant hashtags that are frequently used, including #healthadvocacy #patientauthor and #patientcentricity.

Patient advisory boards are one of the most commonly implemented patient-centric activities and can be useful for gaining insight into disease and treatment directly from patients. Getting patients involved right from the planning stages ensures that the ad board is targeted, relevant and accessible. Patients may also be involved as authors of peer-review publications, and key considerations for maximising their contribution include meeting patient authors where they are comfortable and find out their preferred method(s) of reviewing documents and providing feedback, making sure patients understand what is being asked of them, and providing plain language summaries of legal documents and author agreements. Patients can also be involved in medical congresses, but it is important that the right patients are selected. Not everyone wants to stand up and give a talk in front of a room of medical professionals!

Behavioural change across the industry is needed to increase patient involvement across the drug development process. Early and consistent engagement is key, and we have a role as publication professionals to be champions of patient engagement.


Future directions

One of the biggest future challenges is in access to information. It is our responsibility as medical publication professionals to make sure that the information we generate targets the right people in the right way. Other big changes include the use of virtual and digital media as communication tools, and the use of multichannel communication streams. These have the potential to revolutionise the way we communicate and allow us to provide information in an audience-friendly way. There is an increasing demand for patient involvement in medical communications throughout the drug development process, and for transparency and improved access to data. Artificial intelligence will also change the way we work and help us understand data in ways that were not previously possible.

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