ASCO President on 'Making Lemonade' for Virtual Annual Meeting

David H. Henry, MD; Howard A. "Skip" Burris III, MD


May 18, 2020

This interview was originally published as part of MDEdge's Blood & Cancer Podcast series. In this episode, podcast host David H. Henry, MD, of Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia, spoke with Howard A. "Skip" Burris, III, MD, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). With COVID-19 forcing ASCO to cancel its meeting in Chicago this year, Dr Burris explained how the organization is moving to a virtual format while trying to retain everything that makes this the premier annual event for oncology education and research. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

David H. Henry, MD: What's an entirely virtual ASCO meeting going to look like?

Howard A. "Skip" Burris, III, MD: This has been evolving, but we will have that traditional Friday to Sunday ASCO weekend. We will be presenting all the ASCO abstracts, clinical trial results, and the scientific symposiums to our members. That will be done with timely, dedicated sessions.

You'll hear the presidential address and some featured speakers, and then you'll also have the ability to flip between different sessions to hear disease-specific clinical trials reported live during that weekend. That content will endure so you can come back in and see something later, or if you didn't have the opportunity to dial in that weekend.

Henry: Will educational presentations also be included?

Burris: In the interest of time, we're going to push the educational program to a weekend in August, the specific dates of which we'll be firming up later. It's important that we still get out information on these clinical trial results to the public, and we feel like we can be a little more timely in that regard.

People love the educational sessions. When those take place in August, we'll have the same speakers, the same quality of presentations, and make that a great experience as well.

Henry: And that'll also be virtual?

Burris: Yes. We're going to do all the scheduled ASCO meetings and activities virtually, at least through the summer. With everyone's prayers and fingers crossed, we're hoping that maybe by the fall we'll see the opportunity to interact. But certainly, I think we'd all agree that the COVID-19 story is going to be with us for a while.

Henry: One of the great parts of ASCO is the interactions it offers, with questions following speaker sessions. How will that be handled virtually?

Burris: It's going to require some discipline among our listeners and participants. We're going to have the live chat feed during these broadcast sessions so that we can facilitate discussion. Obviously, this is a first, but I'm optimistic that it will go well.

One thing that's been interesting to me and others is that we have had the opportunity over the past couple of weeks to be in more WebEx conversations than we've ever been in. I certainly didn't know how to do a live chat feed a few weeks ago, and now I might be an expert by next month. That's also true technologically, with the increased use of telemedicine. I'm hopeful that by the first weekend in June, this will be old hat for us.

Henry: Is there one particular platform you're using that's stable enough to handle all of the virtual attendees and participants?

Burris: It's better to be lucky than good. Thankfully, ASCO recently hired a chief digital officer, Christopher Merlan, following a decision made by the board last year.

The virtual meeting will use a cloud-based platform to be able to handle the volume. And then we'll be using some partnerships with technology companies to actually get this out there. Our support technology company that helps us with the annual meeting has the capabilities to help roll that out.

I should also mention that all of the continuing medical education and Maintenance of Certification credits will still be available.

And we've decided to make the scientific program at the beginning of June and the educational meeting in August free to our members. We know there's a lot of hardship going on at this time and a lot of competing priorities. We want to make sure that people feel comfortable getting access to the information and make that as pleasant as possible.

Henry: That's incredible. And as I understand it, for those of us who have already signed up, you're going to refund the registration fees?

Burris: Yes. There will be opportunities to parlay that to next year if it's easier for you or to have that get credited back to your credit card. But we will take care of all that, so that will be exciting for the members as well.

How the Pandemic May Reshape ASCO for Years to Come

Henry: In the best of times, not everybody can travel for personal, professional, or financial reasons. Now anybody who is an ASCO member or signs up can participate. How do you expect that to impact attendance?

Burris: You bring up a great point because it's always about half of the 40,000 attendees who are international, with probably half of that group coming from Asia and parts of Europe. So I think this is going to open up much more of Asia to participate. The fact that it will be enduring and recorded also means they'll have the opportunity to come in on their time zone and watch the shows. And then we know that there are many in Europe who are very involved in this research but may not have had the opportunity to travel all the way to Chicago.

For the weekend, I'm cautiously optimistic. I think we'll probably get 10,000 or so that will be on during the actual times when we're showing it. In terms of individuals who end up logging in and accessing the information, our prior records have been in the 40,000 range, and I certainly think we'll pass that for all the reasons you mentioned.

Henry: I think you probably will. Returning to the scientific presentations, a certain number of abstracts were accepted and people were going to be presenting in person. Are all these scientific presentations going to be there?

Burris: Yes, we are going to be able to do that. We've been advising those who will be doing oral presentations about how those should be recorded. Those will be due by the middle of May and we'll have the opportunity to work with physicians if those need to be repeated.

The posters will be handled in the traditional format and will be available for viewing on the Web. There is a great technology platform that will enable those posters to be easily viewed. We'll handle the discussion portion of those sessions by having somebody talk about the various posters.

Also, every abstract is scored. We're also going to use some guides to help highlight the most impactful abstracts. We're going to try to make it easier for clinicians to access what we have determined is practice-changing trial data or science.

And I'll just throw a teaser out there right now. Every ASCO president always worries about their plenary session and whether there are going to be groundbreaking or practice-changing abstracts to present. This year's plenary session looks fabulous. We're going to have a handful of really state-of-the-art clinical trial results presented with discussants during the plenary. That will take place on a Sunday, as it has traditionally been done. People can either dial in and watch it from their couch, or they can come back and watch it later when they have time.

Henry: I'm so happy to hear that the posters will be shown. I thought I would just have to hang my poster in the living room and hope the family understood what it was. Have the abstracts been released?

Burris: The majority of abstracts were released on May 13.

There will also be press briefings that will occur around the meeting, so there will be several different avenues for individuals to get information.

Frankly, we always get suggestions on how we can make poster sessions better. The halls tend to get crowded or you're watching a whole session and you don't make it over there. You typically see people running around the hall snapping pictures of posters. So it might be that outstanding posters like yours get more attention when they're available on the Web, because people have the opportunity to come back and not be time pressured.

Henry: It's certainly taken a lot of time, effort, and technology, but maybe what will come out of it is a format that will exist in the future as well.

Burris: I think you're right. Everything about the way we're practicing medicine, attending meetings, and interacting is likely to be different pre- and post-pandemic, similar to how we talk about pre- and post-9/11.

I was nervous at first, but now I email my patients. I've loved the telehealth visits. I was dreading having my face on webcasts all the time and now it turns out that it's just part of life.

ASCO CEO Clifford Hudis and I have discussed that how the meeting looks going forward will probably change. People are going to like this ability to go back and review the data and how we present it. We'll take the best of what we learn from this meeting and apply it going forward.

Henry: Making lemonade out of lemons. It'll give us something new and different. What an amazing turn of events.

ASCO's COVID-19 Registry and Educational Efforts

Henry: ASCO has established something called the Survey on COVID-19 in Oncology Registry. Can you explain what that is and how it might help us?

Burris: We received a number of questions that came in, both from patients through Cancer.Net and from our members through about COVID-19. They expressed concerns such as, "Should patients be treated?" and "How do we continue on?" The phrase you usually hear is, "Stay safe but stay the course." However, cancer is so different. We can't shut down like we have done with some of the joint replacement and valve replacement surgeries.

ASCO got some experts to comment on the frequently asked questions, but we also really wanted to begin to aggregate real-time data and learn from this. Under the leadership of Dr Richard Schilsky, who heads ASCO's Center for Research and Analytics, we launched the ASCO registry. We reached out to our pharma and biotech colleagues and through the Conquer Cancer foundation received some support. I have to give special thanks to those companies who have helped put this together.

The idea is to not just get a snapshot of data, but to actually get longitudinal data. We're hoping that we can continue to have the sites receive some funding to collect both the baseline and follow-up data about how the virus is impacting cancer care and patient outcomes.

I think we're going to learn a lot from just basic demographics but also from being able to track various groups of patients and how they perform. There have been stories out of China and other earlier hotspots, like Italy, about lung cancer patients versus not, older patients versus those who are younger, those who are on immunotherapy.

We plan on delivering periodic reports to the cancer community and the broader public on key learnings. We'll try to have it as a real-time educational tool for oncologists, as well as other providers and our patients, just as soon as we learn something about the COVID-19 epidemic and how it's affecting cancer care.

Some of the early things we're already taking note of are the rapid implementation of telemedicine and seeing some of the treatment modifications and delays. It's exciting. There are a number of registries out there, and we're partnering with other societies to make sure that the data are aggregated. But I think this will be unique in the fact that it's going to have a longitudinal aspect to it with some longer-term follow-up.

Henry: Really incredible. How do people find out more and potentially participate?

Burris: On ASCO's website you'll find a link that takes you straight into the registry, with great information. We've got a number of practices that have already signed up. It's actually a fairly straightforward process in terms of how the various practices can participate.

There's also a wealth of information on the ASCO website about COVID-19 and educational tools.

Then for your patients, Dr Merry Markham is one of our cancer communication leaders. She has a blog on Cancer.Net about coronavirus, COVID-19, and patients with cancer. I encourage anyone who has patients with questions to visit that very user-friendly website. It's a great place to get some information.

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