Medical Meetings May Be Forever Changed

Coronavirus Silver Lining?

Nick Mulcahy

March 27, 2020

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

UPDATED April 7, 2020 // Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from the American College of Cardiology about their recently completed virtual annual meeting and predictions for the future.

As most 2020 medical conferences have, one by one, been canceled or rescheduled as virtual meetings in the time of a pandemic, some physicians and other healthcare professionals are wondering if this is the year that will change the scene forever.

Amid the choruses of resignation ("unfortunately, it's the right thing to do") and optimism ("see you next year!"), there have been plenty of voices describing another broad sentiment ― that all was not well with medical meetings even before the coronavirus.

On the other hand, at least one major meeting official believes there is a growth opportunity in virtual conferences ― namely, addressing all those professionals who can’t make a meeting in person.

One dominant criticism is that there are too many meetings.

Indeed, there are many, many meetings. From 2005–2015, there were 30,000-plus medical meetings in the United States, according to a report from the Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association.

Most of those are of little value, tweeted Dhruv Khullar, MD, an internist at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York City (@DhruvKhullar ): "One possible consequence of cancelling so many meetings due to #COVID19 is that we realize we probably don't need most of them."

The tweet was liked 1.9K times, which is high for a medical post. Comments were mostly in agreement, with some skepticism.

Michaela West, MD, PhD, a surgeon at North Memorial Health, Minneapolis, Minnesota, responded: "Agree. COVID-19 may forever change our perspective regarding medical professional meetings."

Nwando Olayiwola, MD, chair of family medicine, Ohio State University, Columbus, strongly agreed: "This is the tweet I wish I tweeted."

However, Kelly Swords, MD, MPH, urologist, University of California, San Diego, in a dissenting opinion, stated the obvious: "Except there is no substitute for human interaction."

Worth the Effort?

The cancellation of medical meetings has given those who regularly attend an opportunity to reassess their value and to question the worth of the effort involved in attending in person.

David Steensma, MD, hematologist-oncologist, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, tweeted that he would like to scale back: "The present crisis is an opportunity to reassess what is actually necessary and rebalance [in terms of meetings]."

Travel to meetings is often unpleasant, said others.

Chris Palatucci, life sciences executive recruiter, Coulter Partners, Boston, tweeted: "I will die a happy man if I never get on another plane. Glorified bus travel." He also believes that once the coronavirus crisis is over, its "silver lining" will be the realization that "40% of all meetings are unnecessary."

Many professionals have welcomed the announcements that major conferences have been canceled and will be conducted virtually.

The latest change is from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), whose annual meeting was to be held in Chicago at the end of May but will now be held online.

Virtual ASCO will be more manageable ― and comfy, said Fumiko Ladd Chino, MD, radiation oncologist, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York City.

Chino explained why in a recent tweet: "1) I will be finally able to see ALL OF THE PRESENTATIONS I wanted to see instead of wandering around feeling overwhelmed. 2) I will be able to FOCUS on the presentations and not searching for a power outlet. 3) PAJAMAS.

Virtual meetings already beat real meetings, added Adriana Scheliga MD, hematologist-oncologist, Brazilian National Cancer Institute: "I've been saying this for a while. For me the best ASCO Meetings, for example, are the "virtual meetings!"

Is This the Time to Evaluate Meetings?

Medical meetings in distant locales may bounce back, as they have grown into a very big business. ASCO is illustrative.

The group's first scientific annual meeting was held in 1965 in Philadelphia, with about 70 members and invited guests in attendance. Fast forward 50-plus years to 2019: there were 42,500 attendees, a 4.4% increase from 2018. Notably, the top countries in attendance in 2019 were the United States and China.

Not everyone is happy that canceled meetings are being held online in the middle of a pandemic.

"In a COVID-19 world, the brain cannot focus on nonviral topics," said commentator John Mandrola MD, Baptist Health, Louisville, in his regular column for Medscape Cardiology |

The American College of Cardiology (ACC) virtual meeting, which took place during approximately the same time as the original meeting had been planned, should have been canceled or delayed ― to mirror what is happening in the world, he argues. "In hospitals, we have postponed the elective to make room for the coming surge. Shouldn't ACC do the same? After the crisis passes, we can have a virtual meeting with a proper discussion of the science," he writes.

But in March, #MedTwitter, with its collective constructive criticism of medical meetings, is perhaps proof that the brain can function ― and arrive at clarity ― when under pandemic duress.

"Am I the only one experiencing a certain relief at the cancellation of multiple trips and meetings, and vowing to let this revelation affect my decision making in the future," tweeted Steven Joffe, MD, MPH, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Louise Perkins King, MD, a bioethicist at Harvard University, responded to Joffe. Hoping not to "belittle" the suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, she addressed her healthcare colleagues: "...there is potential for us all to learn what is essential travel and burden and what is not from this. I hope it leads to lasting change."

Eye-Opener: The Virtual Audience

This year's ACC conference has now taken place as a virtual event. Medscape Medical News reached out to Janice Sibley, executive vice president, education and publications, to learn how things went and to hear her predictions for the future.

"We had a remarkable response to our virtual conference," she said.

The ACC meeting, which was free and online only, outdrew last year's in-person event, with 38,006 unique participants over 3 days, vs last year's 18,000 total attendees, who paid a fee.

"I think it opened our eyes to a completely new audience of attendees who can't attend in person, whether it's because of work commitments, family commitments, financial constraints, or another reason," she said. "I think from this point on we will continue to engage that audience."

However, virtual conferences will not kill off in-person events or reduce the number of in-person attendees, she predicted.

"Nothing can replace the excitement and camaraderie that happens at a live, in-person conference," said Sibley.

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