In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virtual medical meeting is now the norm. And while it's admirable that key data are being disseminated (often for free), there is no escaping the fact that it is a fundamentally different and lesser experience.
Watching from home, most of us split our attention between live streams of the meeting and work and family obligations. There is far less urgency when early live presentations are recorded and can be viewed later.
In terms of discussing the data, Twitter may offer broader participation than a live meeting, yet only a small number of attendees actively engage online.
And the exhibit halls for these online meetings? With neither free coffee nor company-branded tchotchkes, I expect that they have virtual tumbleweeds blowing through and crickets chirping.
Even still, the virtual meeting experience, while inferior to the live one, is a tremendous advance. It should never be banished as a historical footnote but rather should remain an option. It's analogous to watching the Super Bowl at home: Obviously it's not the same as being there, but it's a terrific alternative. Like telemedicine, this pandemic has provided a critical proof of concept that there is a better model.
Reshaping the Medical Meeting
Let's consider five reasons why medical meetings should be permanently reshaped by this pandemic.
This pandemic isn't going away in 2020. While nearly every country has done a far better job than the United States of containing COVID-19 thus far, outbreaks remain a problem wherever crowds assemble. You'd be hard-pressed to devise a setting more conducive to mass spread than a conference of 20,000 attendees from all over the world sitting alongside each other cheek to jowl for 5 days. Worse yet is the thought of them returning home and infecting their patients, families, and friends. What medical society wants to be remembered for creating a COVID-19 superspreader event? Professional medical societies will need to offer this option as the safest alternative moving forward.
Virtual learning still conveys the most important content. Despite the many social benefits of a live meeting, its core purpose is to disseminate new research and current and emerging treatment options. Virtual meetings have proven that this format can effectively deliver the content, and not as a secondary offering but as the sole platform in real time.
Virtual learning levels the playing field. Traveling to attend conferences typically costs thousands of dollars, accounting for the registration fees, inflated hotel rates, ground transportation, and meals out for days on end. Most meetings also demand several days away from our work and families, forcing many of us to work extra in the days before we leave and upon our return. Parents and those with commitments at home also face special challenges. For international participants, the financial and time costs are even greater. A virtual meeting helps overcome these hurdles and erases barriers that have long precluded many from attending a conference.
Virtual learning is efficient and comfortable. Virtual meetings over the past 6 months have given us a glimpse of an astonishingly more efficient form. If the content seems of a lower magnitude without the fanfare of a live conference, it is in part because so much of a live meeting is spent walking a mile between session rooms, waiting in concession or taxi lines, sitting in traffic between venues, or simply waiting for a session to begin. All of that has been replaced with time that you can use productively in between video sessions viewed either live or on demand.
And with a virtual meeting, you can comfortably watch the sessions. There's no need to stand along the back wall of an overcrowded room or step over 10 people to squeeze into an open middle seat. You can be focused, rather than having an end-of-day presentation wash over you as your eyes cross because you've been running around for the past 12 hours.
Virtual learning and social media will only improve. While virtual meetings unquestionably have limitations, it's important to acknowledge that the successes thus far still represent only the earliest forays into this endeavor. In-person meetings evolved to their present form over centuries. In contrast, virtual meetings are being cobbled together within a few weeks or months. They can only be expected to improve as presenters adapt their skills to the online audience and new tools improve virtual discussions.
I am not implying that live meetings will or should be replaced by virtual ones. We still need that experience of trainees and experts presenting to a live audience and discussing the results together, all while sharing the energy of the moment. But there should be room for both a live conference and a virtual version.
Practically speaking, it is unclear whether professional societies could forgo the revenue they receive from registration fees, meeting sponsorships, and corporate exhibits. Yet, there are certainly ways to obtain sponsorship revenue for a virtual program. Even if the virtual version of a conference costs far less than attending in person, there is plenty of room between that number and free. It costs remarkably little for a professional society to share its content, and virtual offerings further the mission of distributing this content broadly.
We should not rush to return to the previous status quo. Despite their limitations, virtual meetings have brought a new, higher standard of access and efficiency for sharing important new data and treatment options in medicine.
H. Jack West, MD, associate clinical professor and executive director of employer services at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in Duarte, California