COVID-19: Virtual 'Highlights' Event Replaces APA Annual Meeting

Deborah Brauser

April 20, 2020

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

In place of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2020 Annual Meeting, which was canceled on March 15 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization is now planning a free, 2-day virtual event featuring top experts in the field.

The scaled-down event, known as the Spring Highlights meeting, will be livestreamed April 25 and 26 and feature 15 presentations on a variety of topics including mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, use of telepsychiatry, and research challenges, among others.  

Featured speakers will include Patrice Harris, MD, president of the American Medical Association; George Koob, PhD, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; and Otto Kernberg, MD, New York-Presbyterian Hospital and psychiatry professor at Cornell University.

Dr Saul Levin

CEO of the APA Saul Levin, MD, said the virtual event isn't a full substitute for the APA Annual Meeting, but will include essential information nonetheless.

"There were some speakers that we felt the membership should still hear because of their leadership in the psychiatric field and because of the subject of their talks," Levin told Medscape Medical News.

"It's not an Annual Meeting but it is the meeting that will at least let our members have the chance to still get their continuing medical education and board maintenance of certification credits," he added.

Program for Changing Times

Dr Tristan Gorrindo

"This has been an opportunity to shape a program to the times that physicians now find themselves in," Tristan Gorrindo, MD, director of the APA's Division of Education and a child psychiatrist in Washington, DC, told Medscape Medical News.

Recordings of these presentations may be available later in the year, but possibly at a fee. So clinicians should plan to watch their favorite sessions or even the entire event live, Gorrindo added.

Levin said the APA anticipates about 3000 participants for the livestream, which will run as an online webinar. However, viewers need to register in advance for the free event on the APA's website.

Presenters will broadcast from home and share slides via their desktop screens. Moderators throughout the 2 days will be members of the APA's Scientific Program Committee. They will also monitor questions that viewers can ask via typed chat sessions at the end.

"It's essentially a giant Zoom meeting," Gorrindo said.

The event will begin at noon Eastern time on Saturday, April 25. Harris will discuss "Physician Leadership During Times of Crisis," and Joshua Gordon, MD, PhD, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, will speak on the "Programs, Priorities, and Plans" of his organization.

Other topics include substance use disorders in perinatal women, current and future directions for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and crisis hotlines for "transforming care delivery."

The latter presentation is especially important "because we know the crisis hotline system is being utilized more than ever during this COVID crisis," Gorrindo noted.

Sunday's topics will include expanding psychiatric practice through telepsychiatry; "Alcohol Use Disorder: The Brain, the Pain, and Alleviating the Shame;" autoantibodies in psychiatric disease; a historical perspective of black gay men; and addiction research opportunities and challenges.

Also on Sunday will be Kernberg's talk on "Narcissistic Pathology of Love Relations."

"Otto Kernberg is one of the luminaries in our field and one of our favorite speakers at every Annual Meeting. People line up to hear him speak," Gorrindo said.

"He brings the…traditional psychoanalytic approach to understanding a contemporary paradigm or problem a clinician is thinking," he added.

"We Only Had a Month"

Last year's meeting, which was held in San Francisco, included more than 13,000 clinicians and over 500 sessions during the 5-day event.

Levin and Gorrindo said there wasn't enough time to convert this year's meeting, which was expected to be almost as large, into an all-virtual version.

"Some organizations who were able to do a full [virtual] conference had a lot more lead time to put it together. We only had a month in which to make the decision," Levin said.

"We had hundreds of sessions scheduled for the Annual Meeting and to try and think about bringing all of those online in 4 weeks was almost an impossible task — not because of the technology but because we were afraid our faculty wouldn't be available," Gorrindo said.

"We know many of them are stressed and dealing with tumultuous situations at their hospitals related to COVID. So we thought trying to put on a big meeting could be fraught with a lot of problems," he added.

At a time clinicians are now using technology now more than ever, including participating in Zoom meetings, providing a trimmed-down virtual event made sense, Levin said.

Gorrindo noted that the APA will contact all presenters who were scheduled to speak at the conference and give them the opportunity to present their talks remotely over Zoom over the next few months. These presentations will be recorded and become part of the APA's OnDemand digital package, which will be available for purchase later this year.

Recordings of some of the Spring Highlights presentations will also be included in the OnDemand product and/or provided as stand-alones to APA members later in the year.

Posters that were submitted and accepted for the 2020 Annual Meeting will not be available, said Gorrindo. "The time frame was a little bit too short for that," he said.

Gorrindo said the scientific program committee is looking into a possible "express path" where 2020 posters could be resubmitted for the 2021 Annual Meeting, but that decision is pending.  

"This is our first robust foray into the virtual meeting space. If we're going to be spending more time and effort doing virtual meetings, we'll be looking into bringing other pieces of our traditional Annual Meeting online, such as posters," he said.

Economic Hit

The current pandemic has caused scientific organizations all over the world to postpone or outright cancel annual meetings, causing considerable economic hardship.

Asked how "big of a hit" the APA took for canceling the in-person meeting, Levin said the APA took a financial hit since the Annual Meeting is a major revenue stream for the organization.

"It is a hit; but we're fortunate that APA has ensured that it's stewarded its money carefully and that we will get over this hiccup," he said.

"Our big issue is: how long will it continue? And will it affect our meetings into the future? Like most associations, we're all hurting because this is one of the main income streams that an association depends on to be able to do services for its members and their patients," Levin said.

Although venues and vendors are typically booked years in advance with nonrefundable payments, he noted that the COVID-19 pandemic is considered a "force majeure" or an "Act of God" and so allowances were made.

"This helped us in terms of the convention center fees, hotel fees, etc," Levin explained.

"COVID-19 has brought everyone together; we're all suffering together. I have to commend the convention center, the city of Philadelphia, and also the hotels and other vendors for truly stepping up to ensure that in the end, APA will remain relevant," he said.

What About Next Year?

Plans for the APA's 2021 annual meeting are currently on track and will be held May 1-5 in Los Angeles, and in just a few months the association will start reviewing new abstract submissions.

"We cull through thousands of abstracts to select the talks that'll be presented at [next year's] annual meeting, a process that takes almost an entire year," said Gorrindo.

However, if the current situation lingers and in-person attendance is not possible, Levin said a longer virtual version might be possible.

"What we're all adapting to in COVID is the changing world and environment," he said.

"While the majority of people prefer to do it the way they've always done it because they know it and it's comfortable, we will begin to experiment more and more with how we put on the annual meetings, which I think will also be attractive to the younger generation," Levin concluded.

The schedule for the Spring Highlights Meeting, along with abstracts for each presentation, is on the APA's website.

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