COMMENTARY

Should Medical Conferences Be Canceled for COVID-19?

F. Perry Wilson, MD, MSCE

Disclosures

March 10, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to Impact Factor, your weekly dose of commentary on a new medical study. I'm Dr F. Perry Wilson.

This week: medical conferences. For many of us, the yearly medical conference is a welcome break from the day-to-day—a chance to meet up with colleagues we rarely see, learn what new research is going on in our field, do some networking, and maybe take in the sights of a new city.

But this year, amid the coronavirus epidemic, the medical conference may pose a public health risk.

Though initially slow to act, more and more conferences are being canceled as infections increase. (There's an up-to-date list here on Medscape.) Is this a good idea?

There's a pretty straightforward case here. Medical professionals are at higher risk for exposure to coronavirus because we come into contact with lots and lots of patients. Gathering a large group of medical professionals in a single place increases the risk for exposure further. Factor in airplane flights to and from the conferences, and the chance that infection is spread is significant. And remember, although many of us are lucky enough to be relatively healthy and thus at low risk for significant complications, many of our patients are not.

By the way, transmission of COVID-19 at a medical conference may have happened already. Two infected physicians from Australia reportedly attended a radiology conference with 77 other practitioners a couple of weeks ago.

Friday, it was reported that three Boston residents contracted COVID-19 at a meeting organized by Biogen.

To me, the decision is pretty clear, though I'll admit that I'm not staring at the balance sheet of a medical organization; these conferences are often their number-one source of revenue.

But, as I've been somewhat open about expressing this, some folks have suggested that we're all overreacting. After all, we conduct conferences in the midst of flu season every year.

And that got me thinking, Should we be having these conferences at all? So I dug into the data a bit to find out: How dangerous are medical conferences?

Spread of disease at a medical conference is not a new phenomenon.

In 1969, a report in the Lancet documented an outbreak of influenza at an international medical conference. One third of attendees were infected.

But to be fair, most of the reports of conference outbreaks aren't from respiratory viruses but from contaminated food.

In 1990, at a conference of 427 physicians in Wales, 196 contracted Salmonella due to a contaminated chicken buffet. Here's a histogram you'd never want to be a part of.


 

More than 1600 "doctor-days" were lost to the National Health Service because of that little poultry problem.

At an international AIDS conference, around 70 delegates contracted SRSV gastroenteritis. There have been norovirus outbreaks at conferences as well.

So, yes, these things happen. They lead to a loss in productivity. And ordinarily we could absorb that. But currently we have to contend with the possibility that our health systems may be stretched to their limits, and those doctor-days lost might be a major problem.

Of course, there is a downside to these cancellations. I still believe that medical conferences serve a good purpose: disseminating knowledge, cohering a specialty around best practices for care, and, importantly, giving younger providers, trainees, and students a chance to meet with those at the top of their field.

So, here's my pitch. Medical conferences occurring in the next couple of months should be canceled or held virtually. We can reevaluate later conferences as time goes on. Trainees, students, and fellows should have their registrations refunded, but attending physicians like me should forfeit the registration fees. Treat it as a donation to a nonprofit that has fallen on some really hard times. Pharma sponsors should do the same thing. Keep these organizations afloat so we can have conferences again next year, when, by one mechanism or another, we'll all be immune.

F. Perry Wilson, MD, MSCE, is an associate professor of medicine and director of Yale's Program of Applied Translational Research. His science communication work can be found in the Huffington Post, on NPR, and here on Medscape. He tweets @methodsmanmd and hosts a repository of his communication work at www.methodsman.com.

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