Leveraging Technology to Make the Most of a Scientific Meeting

David Graham, MD


January 15, 2016

National scientific meetings have a lot of appeal. The newest, most exciting, and most impactful studies tend to be presented there. National and international experts present talks and can be available to interact with. A chance to network with colleagues in your field of interest is always a good thing.

The meetings can certainly have their downsides as well, though. Travel, hotels, and time away from the practice can all be significant. Even for those attending the meetings, there can be an issue in terms of the amount of material presented. There are multiple sessions occurring simultaneously.

Last year, I informally reviewed all of the sessions that occurred at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). By my review, for every hour that sessions were ongoing, a person at the meeting could see about 10% of the presentations. The question then becomes: How can someone, whether they're attending the meeting or not, get the most of the information presented?

There are a couple of different answers to that question. One answer is provided by the meeting itself; the second comes from the crowds at the meetings.

Fortunately, most organizations that put on meetings have recognized the difficulty that comes with the size of these gatherings. The progression of technology used in the presentations makes the sharing of information much easier. The old days of making slides that are carried in on carousels are long gone.

Most large meetings now have presentations that include digital slides and many meetings have presenters release the use of those slides to the organization. The audio can then be recorded, and the two synched together for online presentation. These presentations may be marketed as 'virtual meetings' or "i-meetings" and may be included in the registration for a meeting, but at an extra cost for those not attending.

This model is used for the annual meetings of ASCO, the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO), American College of Physicians, American College of Cardiology, American College of Radiology, and American College of Chest Physicians, among others. The most generous program I found was from the American Urological Association. They provide a number of their annual meeting presentations available as free webcasts, including plenary abstracts, "best abstract" presentations, and critical discussions.

In these days of more and more things being "crowdsourced," it's no surprise that meeting information can be made available using that method as well. The most common method used is Twitter.

Because I realize that plenty of people are not versed in the intricacies of Twitter, a moment of explanation might be helpful. Twitter is a way of delivering short bursts of information, known as "tweets." It is currently limited to 140 characters of text, although that may be changing soon. Pictures can also be transmitted in tweets, as can hyperlinks.

The technology of Twitter allows searching of content using what are known as "hashtags" (#). Hashtags are labels attached by the sender of the tweet. They may sometimes be used as a comment on the tweet itself, but in this situation, they are used to amass tweets into easily collectable groups.

Several meetings are now designating "official hashtags" that they request meeting attendees use (Table). As an example, the 2015 ASCO annual meeting used #ASCO15 as its official hashtag. During the month that included the meeting, over 70,000 tweets used this hashtag. These tweets came from attendees, outside followers, and even financial people paying attention to the meeting.

Table. Official 2015 Meeting Hashtags

American Society of Clinical Oncology #ASCO15
American Society for Radiation Oncology #ASTRO15
American College of Cardiology #ACC15
American Urological Association #AUA15
American College of Radiology #ACR2015
American College of Chest Physicians #CHEST2015

The old days of people taking pictures of the slides at the meeting have resumed—only now iPads® have replaced cameras, and those photos are uploaded as tweets concurrently with the talk. ASCO has even gone as far has designating "featured voices" that focus their tweeting on specific disease areas. (Full disclosure: I have been one of those featured voices the past 2 years.)

The impact of Twitter is that there is now essentially a moderated summary of the meeting generated as the meeting is occurring. A person can sit in another session at the meeting, in their office, or at home, and learn what is being presented throughout the entire meeting, as well as the reactions to the presented material.

As a result of these technologies, meetings, which were once seen as becoming too big to deal with, have become much more manageable. We can feel less worried that we are missing some important issues just because they were lost in the huge amount of material presented.


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