Your Medical Conference Is Canceled. Now What?

Alicia Gallegos

March 16, 2020

Khadija Hafidh, MD, was already booked on a 14-hour, direct flight from Dubai to Los Angeles, when the American College of Physicians (ACP) announced it was canceling its internal medicine meeting scheduled for April.

Canceling her hotel reservation was not a problem, and she was assured a refund for the conference fee, but her airline ticket was another matter, said Dr. Hafidh, an internist and diabetologist with the Dubai Health Authority.

"The airline I booked my ticket with is willing to waive the change fees, but will deduct a cancellation fee if I choose not to take the trip," Dr. Hafidh said in an interview. "The cancellation fees is $300. A bit steep I must admit."

Dr. Hafidh now faces a dilemma: Lose the $300 and cancel, or change her flight dates to June for the American Diabetes Association meeting in Chicago.

"But then again, we aren't sure if that meeting will take place," Dr. Hafidh said. "A few weeks ago I thought this whole thing was just a storm in a tea cup. However when it was declared a pandemic yesterday, it brought about another dimension."

More than 25 medical meetings and conferences across the globe have been canceled or postponed because of COVID-19 concerns. The sudden cancellations have caused reservation woes and travel headaches for thousands of physicians who planned to attend the meetings. Some societies are considering the idea of virtual conferences, while other associations have scrapped their meetings until next year.

For physicians facing a canceled conference, the most likely question is, what now? Read on for tips and suggestions.

Reservation Refunds Vary

Refunds on airfare because of conference cancellations differ, depending on the airline and where you were traveling. Some airlines, such as United Airlines, have waived all change fees for tickets issued March 3, 2020, through March 31, 2020, and passengers can change their dates for up to 12 months after the ticket was issued.

Full refunds often depend on whether your ticket was nonrefundable when purchased. Many airlines, such as Delta, are providing full refunds if the airline canceled your flight. JetBlue is waiving all change and cancellation fees for customers scheduled to travel March 10, 2020, through April 30, 2020.

Las Vegas–based dermatologist H.L. Greenberg, MD, was satisfied with the credit he received from Southwest Airlines after the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) canceled its Denver meeting. He and his staff were looking forward to the gathering, but he noted that the meeting would likely have been limited, even if it had take place as scheduled.

"I am disappointed that I won't be able to meet with colleagues and industry to explore what the latest advances and interests are in dermatology," he said. "Because many academic institutions were forbidding their faculty from traveling, the content of the meeting was going to be severely diminished. It's just a rough time for everyone."

Meanwhile, Asa Radux, MD, PhD, a New York–based internist, received a full refund for his Amtrak ticket to Boston when the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) scheduled for early March was converted to a virtual meeting. Dr. Radix, senior director of research and education at the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in New York, left another meeting in Brazil early to get to the Boston conference, he said.

"I was packed, but really that was a minor inconvenience," he said in an interview. "I appreciate that they prioritized health concerns and changed to a virtual meeting. I received full refunds, no issues whatsoever. [It was] really great since I had no travel insurance."

Check with your individual airline or train line for information about ticket refunds and credits. Many airlines are currently making special accommodations because of COVID-19. If your flight was covered by trip insurance, also called travel assistance, you are generally protected against unforeseen financial losses such as cancellations. The U.S. Department of Transportation provides this general online resource about airline refunds.

Hotel Refunds Probable

Most meeting organizations who have made the decision to cancel or postpone a conference also have canceled block hotel reservations reserved for the meeting. Medical associations are not directly refunding the hotel costs, but the majority of hotels are refunding reservations with no questions asked. Physicians interviewed for this story all reported no trouble getting refunds for their hotel reservations. However, attendees who did not book a hotel in official housing blocks should contact the hotel directly to cancel.

What About Registration Fees?

In response to COVID-19 cancellations, most conference leaders are refunding registration fees in full for both attendees and exhibitors. The refund may not be automatic, some associations such as ACP and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists state it may take up to 45 days for the funds to be credited, depending on the payment used.

If the conference you planned to attend was postponed, the registration fee may be assigned to the new meeting dates and the money may not be refunded. Registration fees for the Minimally Invasive Surgery Symposium, for example, delayed until an unconfirmed date, and for the European Association of Urology (EAU) meeting, postponed until July, will be automatically credited to the rescheduled meeting, according to the websites.

If attendees cannot attend the rescheduled EAU meeting, the association will not provide a refund and the registration will not apply to the 2021 meeting, according to its website. However, the group is providing registrants with a free access code for the EAU20 Resource Centre, which contains websites of sessions and scientific content.

A number of physicians have expressed disappointment with the EAU's postponement on social media. On Twitter, some doctors wrote that the rescheduled dates were bad timing, while others lamented the refund refusal.

The EAU said it regrets that some delegates will experience financial losses, but that the organization has already experienced a significant outlay that cannot be recovered including venue, logistics, travel, and accommodation costs.

"We are doing what we can to absorb costs, but we need to be realistic about what is affordable; should the organization have to refund all or even most registrations, it would significantly jeopardize the viability of the organization," the EAU said in a statement.

"These are difficult times, not only for the EAU, but on a global scale. Where there are specific cases of hardship or very extenuating financial circumstances, we will be willing to review individual cases. So far, we believe that we have done what we can do to meet the conflicting demands presented by the postponement of the congress, but this is a situation which changes from day to day, and we need to continuously evaluate what might be the best course of action."

Contact your medical association directly for details on postponements.

What If I'm a Presenter?

In an attempt to save the hard work and time that planners and presenters have invested into now-canceled meetings, some conferences are moving to a digital format. The Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) was the first to convert its in-person conference to a virtual meeting, held from March 8 to 11, 2020. At-home attendees logged onto CROI's digital platform to hear plenaries, oral abstracts, themed discussion sessions, and symposia.

Dr. Radix was one of many CROI speakers who changed his presentation on HIV prevalence among transgender men to a virtual format.

"We were provided with detailed instructions from CROI about how to do this," said Dr. Radix, who tweeted about the experience. "For my presentation, I used the video option in PowerPoint; it seemed the most straightforward and didn't require buying additional software. It was fairly easy to follow the instructions to create the video but it was disappointing to present to an empty room."

Matthew Spinelli, MD, an HIV researcher with the University of California, San Francisco, who also presented virtually, said it was remarkable that CROI leaders were able to put together the virtual program in such a short time. He delivered his presentation on the accuracy of a real-time urine tenofovir test using PowerPoint and a podcast microphone.

"It seemed to work pretty well," he said in an interview. "It's not the same as being there in person, there's a lot of networking and chance conversations that happen when you're all in the same place, but it was the right decision to cancel. If I have to be at home or at work doing social distancing, this was the best possible way of doing it."

Following in CROI's footsteps, the National Kidney Foundation's spring conference has moved to a live virtual conference. The 2020 Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) global health conference also will move to a digital format. Other societies are considering similar virtual options. Check with your meeting website for more details on digital options and attendee access.

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