COMMENTARY

How to Prepare Yourself for a Virtual ASCO

Lidia Schapira, MD

Disclosures

May 22, 2020

For decades, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting has been an annual pilgrimage for those in our field, providing us with a brief reprieve from daily pressures in our practices and an immersive experience focusing on new data or ideas that can be applied to those challenging cases awaiting us when we return home. 

Of course, this is a year unlike any that we in healthcare have ever experienced. Like so many other aspects of our lives, the ASCO annual meeting has taken a new form: the ASCO Virtual Scientific Program. Live presentations and sessions will be offered online from May 29 to May 31 and will be made available for viewing on demand thereafter.

What will we gain and what will we lose from a virtual ASCO? To find out, I conducted an informal poll among colleagues and ASCO enthusiasts.

It immediately became clear that many were experiencing a conflicting sense of both relief and nostalgia. A virtual ASCO means we can avoid the hassle of traveling to Chicago, the awful food and freezing cold meeting rooms at the McCormick Place Convention Center, and racing across its crowded corridors to hear just one more abstract of interest. But colleagues lament the missed opportunities to catch up with friends, the post-session corridor analysis, and visits to Chicago's amazing museums and restaurants.

Staying Social at ASCO Means Embracing Social Media

Getting the most out of a virtual ASCO requires planning and mental adaptation. Imagine that you did buy that plane ticket. Protect your investment by setting aside a block of time to view key sessions and plenaries "live." Although viewing recordings later is a useful feature, the demands of work and life will inevitably begin to mount after the meeting passes.

Sitting in front of a computer screen with the same intensity that we have in an auditorium may be a challenge, particularly when many of us are already feeling intense Zoom fatigue. Inviting a colleague to watch with you may help keep you both on track.

Another advantage of watching the sessions during the traditional ASCO weekend is that you can participate online via Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Use these platforms to discuss how the research may affect practice. ASCO is selecting several members to serve as "Featured Voices" throughout the meeting, who will share their thoughts on social media to stimulate the type of conversations we've come to expect from the meeting.

The virtual format will also enable quieter cross-talk through chats held during or after the sessions. Some of the data presented may require time for digestion and reflection, particularly for those living in countries where governmental approval of a certain therapy does not always equate to instant access.

During my informal poll, I also learned that this year's meeting will probably be remembered as "Twitter ASCO." A colleague who already uses Twitter during the meeting to find out what is happening in other sessions anticipates that it will become the main forum for discussing the science in real time this year, as attendees will be less distracted than usual, especially as there are no simultaneous sessions.

Another upside is that if the authors of published abstracts have a presence on Twitter—and many do these days—then it's possible to directly engage them in conversation or ask follow-up questions. That may be the silver lining in this story.

Advice for Social Media Beginners

Taking advantage of these opportunities may seem challenging if you're a social media novice. To this group, my colleague Merry-Jennifer Markham, MD, recommends creating a Twitter account and following ASCO and other trusted organizations, such as the National Cancer Institute, NRG Oncology, or SWOG. See who these accounts follow and perhaps follow them as well. Definitely follow the annual meeting hashtag (#ASCO20) as a primary means of staying in touch with the information being shared about and during the meeting. ASCO also offers some great tips and resources on using social media.

For those interested in identifying opinion leaders in a particular field on social media, my colleague Mike Thompson, MD, advised prioritizing diversity of thought. That can come from established organizations or it can emerge organically. You may find a comment that really resonates with you and follow that account. Rather than just considering the account author's volume of posts or number of followers, look at the diversity of stakeholder groups that are represented in a conversation, the originality of their comments, and how well they converse with others.

Take it slowly at first, just to get a sense of how conversations happen. When you feel comfortable, retweet messages you find impactful, reply to someone's tweet, and, finally, share something of interest to you.

Acknowledging the Digital Downsides

My poll didn't only identify opportunities but also commonly expressed regrets. There is simply no replacing the opportunities for networking or mentoring that come with an in-person meeting. I'll miss seeing former fellows who now appear as decorated heroes, colorful ribbons streaming from their registration badges. Gone too will be the stray opportunities to connect, whether through a hallway conversation between sessions or the chance meeting that could lead to a collaboration solely because you happened to be sitting next to someone who shares a similar passion.

Another friend reminded me, however, that an interruption does not necessarily imply a loss. An abbreviated meeting may allow for a clearer focus on meaningful data and a chance to process the information by searching the literature from a home computer.

As befits this period of tremendous uncertainty, I'm not yet sure what a virtual ASCO will be. But I am sure of one thing: I'm looking forward to attending, and even more so, to seeing you again in person in Chicago at ASCO in 2021.

Lidia Schapira, MD, associate professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine and director of cancer survivorship at the Stanford Comprehensive Cancer Institute, specializes in the care of women with breast cancer and of all cancer survivors. Her clinical research is dedicated to improving quality-of-life and health outcomes for people living with cancer and their caregivers.

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