Tip Sheets

How to find sources to comment during virtual medical conferences

By Tara Haelle

While there are plenty of advantages to covering virtual medical conferences from home, one of the biggest challenges is finding outside experts to comment on the research that has been presented. Here’s a list of tips I’ve learned over the past year to find those outside commenters even if the conference platform doesn’t allow me to see who’s attending the session. 

  1. Start early. Pick out the sessions you’ll most likely cover as early as you can and start looking for potential outside experts right away.  

  2. Talk with your editor about deadlines and flexibility. How much leeway do you have if you can’t find someone quickly? Do you need to quote someone who attended the presentation, or can you send that person the research abstract/poster to get their thoughts on it?  

  3. Look up the keywords in the abstract title on PubMed to see who else has done similar research. There’s a reasonable chance they might be attending the conference or if your editor allows it, would be willing to look at the abstract/poster to give you some comments since they already have familiarity with related research. 

  4. If they’re available, reach out to the PR folks at the conference itself. They often know the expertise of different attendees and may be able to help you identify helpful experts to comment on the research.  

  5. Reach out to the moderators. Even in virtual mode, most conferences have one or two moderators who introduce the presenters, ask questions, and transition to the next one. These moderators are researchers themselves and are usually listed in the program/schedule ahead of time. One of the conferences I covered included quotes primarily from moderators I had emailed ahead of the meeting to ask if I could interview them afterward.   

  6. Is this a conference you’ve covered before? Look back to your previous stories to find the experts you quoted before. Email them to ask if they’ll be attending this year’s conference and whether they might be available to comment. I recently did this for an upcoming conference. I sent the email to more than a dozen specialists in BCC (blind carbon copy) format and attached a list of the sessions I would be covering so they could glance at it and see if they were attending any of those sessions as well.  

  7. Use the conference’s Twitter hashtag to follow what attendees are tweeting about. Often people attending the conference will be tweeting about it ahead of time. I’ve monitored these hashtags and then replied to the attendees via Twitter to ask what sessions they’re going to or whether I can talk to them after certain sessions.  

  8. During the session, watch the chat/discussion. Usually, attendees’ names appear with their comments. These comments alone are fair game to quote in your story, but if none of the comments are quotable, at least you have some names of people you can reach out to who were present and paying attention to the presentation.  

  9. Use university hospital PR departments. This one requires a bit of work, but I just tried it for the first time with an upcoming conference, and it’s already paying off. Contact the media relations offices at major university hospital systems and ask them for help in locating folks. I already keep a massive spreadsheet that includes email addresses and web pages for the media relations folks at more than a dozen major university hospitals.  

It took me about an hour to go through the hospital systems’ media webpages to pick out the right people - a lot of the larger systems have multiple media relations officers who cover different beats, so looking them up helps you find the right PR person to contact. I put all the names I found in an email, in the BCC [field], I told them I would be covering the upcoming conference and asked if they had any specialists who might be attending. I also attached the list of sessions I planned to attend/cover.  

I admit I was a bit nervous: the email went to more than 15 people at different departments. But it paid off! The next morning, I had three sources I could interview for outside comments on four of the sessions I’m attending, and the conference hasn’t even started yet.