Skipping ASCO 2018? You're Not Alone (And Here's Why)

Lidia Schapira, MD


May 24, 2018

Oncologists have traditionally relied on attending society meetings in person to stay up-to-date on advances in research and clinical practice. But with the advent of Web-based educational resources and the streaming of live content from major meetings, including ASCO, I wondered: How do oncologists feel about whether or not they need to make the trip to Chicago to attend the annual ASCO meeting this year?

I started thinking about this a few years ago when a senior colleague in Boston challenged my assumption that attending the annual ASCO meeting was a "given," an important event that was not to be missed under any circumstances.

He talked about the mounting pressure to keep our clinical volumes up, the expense and hassle associated with travel, and the overwhelming number of scientific and educational sessions now offered at ASCO. Then he calmly explained that he found it far more productive to stay home and watch the content that was relevant to his work on his computer or tablet.

He normally watched the oral sessions in his hotel in Chicago hours after the live event.

Another colleague said he had such a busy schedule during the meeting itself that he normally watched the oral sessions in his hotel in Chicago hours after the live event.

So who is the ASCO annual meeting really for and is it worth our while to travel? Over the past few weeks, I reached out to my colleagues in oncology to find out why they attend the meeting and—just as important—why they don't.

A colleague told me, "It's a good idea to skip an occasional meeting in order to have a fresh perspective on what it is that one seeks to get from the 'meeting experience' and how to approach planning for the next one...[E]arly in your career you want to see and learn EVERYTHING, but you quickly learn this is not possible, and as you focus your career you learn how to navigate and focus the meeting, [thus] getting more out of it."

Others echoed his advice. The meeting can be overwhelming, so it helps to prepare your schedule well in advance and to take some time to reflect on the overarching themes of each meeting. This year's meeting will continue with the themes of preventing toxicities through timely symptom management, de-escalating therapies, and using predictive biomarkers and other novel tools to guide the choice of adjuvant therapies.

What you miss is the corridor analysis of results and the cross-talk.

Another colleague added, "When I had to prepare an 'ASCO update' for my group, I realized that if I gave it sufficient time, I could get far more from the talks if I watched them online. But what you miss is the corridor analysis of results and the cross-talk."

I also heard many colleagues say they really enjoy the opportunity to interact with presenters and that this makes the meeting memorable. And then there are social perks: "The science is definitely worthwhile but I enjoy seeing friends more." Personally, I always notice the friendly banter at the poster sessions and try to say a quick hello to former fellows and friends.

The meeting may have lost its appeal for colleagues in community practices who find it overwhelming and unproductive. A colleague in solo practice told me, "I attended only one ASCO meeting 1 or 2 years after starting in private practice. It was at that moment that I realized I no longer wanted to attend the meeting. I felt that it was impossible for me to glean from the meeting what I desperately needed—to hear about the clinically relevant new data with practice-changing implications. No matter which session I attended, I felt that I was missing several other simultaneous sessions of interest. And many of the presentations, while important and interesting, were not clinically relevant. Since that time I have attended Best of ASCO (and Highlights of ASH) every year, and I am so grateful for these conferences. The material presented is clinically relevant and delivered in a context that allows me to incorporate the new data into the real world of patient care. I struggle daily with trying to keep up with new drugs, new data, new FDA approvals, and an increasingly difficult patient care environment."

No matter which session I attended, I felt that I was missing several other simultaneous sessions of interest.

ASCO's success in drawing national and international crowds that typically exceed 30,000 attendees has made it very impersonal. When asked, "Who is the meeting really for?" a friend responded, "Not sure...[It] feels like it is an international meeting with plenty of investors and constant reminders that oncology is a big business." To the same question, another replied, "It's for clinicians and researchers, giving us opportunities to connect with old friends and do some networking." It seems both are right, and so the challenge for attendees is to chart their path through the obstacle course that is the convention center by planning some social breaks and wearing comfortable footwear!

I was curious to know what friends and colleagues remembered about prior meetings, and specifically about special ASCO moments. What I heard is that special moments involve a personal connection to a speaker, a topic, or an opportunity for a reunion, such as "hearing a friend or a former fellow give a major talk," or "being present when a major breakthrough was presented and discussed," or "having a birthday dinner with friends from different countries."

Did my colleagues care to discuss their "worst" ASCO memories? I heard a lot of travel woes and frustration about having to choose between competing events. For example: "When two [events] or sessions you really want to attend happen simultaneously or so far apart you cannot get to both."

Now that I and my closest colleagues are senior faculty, what advice do we have to give to junior colleagues? Focus on one or two areas, and schedule your meeting with time to meet up with friends and collaborators. Be prepared and be curious, and don't miss the opportunity to visit the amazing art museums in Chicago.

Do you feel that it is still relevant to attend ASCO in person? And what are the best, and worst, aspects of attending ASCO and other big society meetings? Let us know in the comments section.


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