Popularity of Virtual Conferences May Mean a Permanent Shift

Tara Haelle

October 19, 2020

Fifteen days. That's how much time the American College of Cardiology (ACC) had to convert its annual conference, scheduled for the end of March this year in Chicago, into a virtual meeting for the estimated 17,000 people who had planned to attend.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Illinois announced restrictions on the size of gatherings on March 13, causing the ACC to pivot to an online-only model.

Janice Sibley

"One big advantage was that we already had all of our content planned," Janice Sibley, the ACC's executive vice president of education, told Medscape Medical News. "We knew who the faculty would be for different sessions, and many of them had already planned their slides."

But determining how to present those hundreds of presentations at an online conference, not to mention addressing the logistics related to registrations, tech platforms, exhibit hall sponsors, and other aspects of an annual meeting, would be no small task.

As medical societies have pivoted from in-person annual conferences to online meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have found that they are mostly up to the challenge of disseminating research results and clinical education on par with in-person presentations. But according to a Medscape poll, many physicians think that while the virtual experience is worthwhile and getting better, it's never going to be the same as spending several days on-site immersed in the experience of an annual meeting.

As one respondent commented, "I miss the intellectual excitement, the electricity in the room, when there is a live presentation that announces a major breakthrough."

Large Medical Societies Have Advantage

As ACC furiously prepared for its virtual conference, the society first refunded all registration and expo fees and worked with the vendor partners to resolve the cancellation of rental space, food and beverage services, and decorating. Then they organized a team of 15 people split into three groups. One group focused on the intellectual, scientific, and educational elements of the virtual conference. They chose 24 sessions to livestream and decided to prerecord the rest for on-demand access, limiting the number of presenters they needed to train for online presentation.

A second team focused on business and worked with industry partners on how to translate a large expo into digital offerings. They developed virtual pages, advertisements, promotions, and industry-sponsored education.

The third team's focus, Sibley said, was most critical, and the hardest: addressing socio-emotional needs.

"That group was responsible for trying to create the buzz and excitement we would have had at the event," she said, "pivoting that experience we would have had in a live event to a virtual environment. What we were worried about was, would anyone even come?"

But ACC built it, and they did indeed come. Within a half hour of the opening session, nearly 13,000 people logged on from around the world. "It worked beautifully," Sibley said.

By the end of the 3-day event, approximately 34,000 unique visitors had logged in for live or prerecorded sessions. Although ACC worried at first about technical glitches and bandwidth needs, everything ran smoothly. By 90 days after the meeting, 63,000 unique users had logged in to access the conference content.

ACC was among the first organizations forced to switch from an in-person to all-online meeting, but dozens of other organizations have now done the same, discovering the benefits and drawbacks of a virtual environment while experimenting with different formats and offerings. In talking with a few large medical societies about the experience, several common themes emerged:

  • finding new ways to attract and measure attendance;

  • ensuring the actual scientific content was as robust online as in-person;

  • realizing the value of social media in enhancing the socio-emotional experience; and

  • believing that virtual meetings will become a permanent fixture in a future of "hybrid" conferences.

New Ways of Attracting and Measuring Attendance

Previous ways to measure meeting attendance were straightforward: number of registrations and number of people physically walking into sessions. An online conference, however, offers dozens of ways to measure attendance. While the number of registrations remained one tool — and all the organizations Medscape spoke to reported record numbers of registrations — organizations also used other metrics to measure success, such as "participation," "engagement," and "viewing time."

ACC defined "participation" as a unique user logging in, and it defined "engagement" as sticking around for a while, possibly using chat functions or discussing the content on social media. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual conference in May, which attracted more than 44,000 registered attendees, also measured total content views — more than 2.5 million during the meeting — and monitored social media. More than 8800 Twitter users posted more than 45,000 tweets with the #ASCO20 hashtag during the meeting, generating 750 million likes, shares, and comments.

The European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR) annual congress registered a record 18,700 delegates — up from 14,500 in 2019 — but it also measured attendance by average viewing time and visits by congress day and by category.

Organizations shifted fee structures as well. While ACC refunded fees for its first online meeting, it has since developed tiers to match fees to anticipated value, such as charging more for livestreamed sessions that allow interactivity than for viewing recordings. ASCO offered a one-time fee waiver for members plus free registration to cancer survivors and caregivers, discounted registration for patient advocates, and reduced fees for other categories. But adjusting how to measure attendance and charge for events were the easy parts of transitioning to online.

Robust Content a Priority

Dr Julia Rautenstrauch

The biggest difficulty for most organizations was the short time they had to move online, with a host of challenges accompanying the switch, said the executive director of EULAR, Julia Rautenstrauch, DrMed. These included technical requirements, communication, training, finances, legal issues, compliance rules, and other logistics.

"The year 2020 will be remembered for being the year of unexpected transformation," said a spokesperson from European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO), who declined to be named. "The number of fundamental questions we had to ask ourselves is pages long. The solutions we have implemented so far have been successful, but we won't rest on our laurels."

Dr Clifford Hudis

ASCO had an advantage in the pivot, despite only 6 weeks to make the switch, because they already had a robust online platform to build on. "We weren't starting from scratch, but we were sure changing the way we prepared," ASCO CEO Clifford Hudis, MD, said.

All of the organizations made the breadth and quality of scientific and educational content a top priority, and those who have already hosted meetings this year report positive feedback.

"The rating of the scientific content was excellent, and the event did indeed fulfill the educational goals and expected learning outcomes for the vast majority of delegates," EULAR's Rautenstrauch said.

"Our goal, when we went into this, was that in the future when somebody looks back at ASCO20, they should not be able to tell that it was a different year from any other in terms of the science," Hudis said.

Missing Out on Networking and Social Interaction

Even when logistics run smoothly, virtual conferences must overcome two other challenges: the loss of in-person interactions and the potential for "Zoom burnout."

"You do miss that human contact, the unsaid reactions in the room when you're speaking or providing a controversial statement, even the facial expression or seeing people lean in or being distracted," Sibley said.

Taher Modarressi, MD, an endocrinologist with Diabetes and Endocrine Associates of Hunterdon in Flemington, New Jersey, said all the digital conferences he has attended were missing those key social elements: "seeing old friends, sideline discussions that generate new ideas, and meeting new colleagues. However, this has been partly alleviated with the robust rise of social media and 'MedTwitter,' in particular, where these discussions and interactions continue," he said.

To attempt to meet that need for social interaction, societies came up with a variety of options. EULAR offered chatrooms, "Meet the Expert" sessions and other virtual opportunities for live interaction. ASCO hosted discussion groups with subsets of participants, such as virtual meetings with oncology fellows, and it plans to offer networking sessions and "poster walks" during future meetings.

"The value of an in-person meeting is connecting with people, exchanging ideas over coffee, and making new contacts," ASCO's Hudis said. While virtual meetings lose many of those personal interactions, knowledge can also be shared with more people, he said.

The key to combating digital fatigue is focusing on opportunities for interactivity, ACC's Sibley said. "When you are creating a virtual environment, it's important that you offer choices." Online learners tend to have shorter attention spans than in-person learners, so people need opportunities to flip between sessions, like flipping between TV channels. Different engagement options are also essential, such as chat functions on the video platforms, asking questions of presenters orally or in writing, and using the familiar hashtags for social media discussion.

"We set up all those different ways to interact, and you allow the user to choose," Sibley said.

Some conferences, however, had less time or fewer resources to adjust to a virtual format and couldn't make up for the lost social interaction. Andy Bowman, MD, a neonatologist in Lubbock, Texas, was supposed to attend the Neonatal & Pediatric Airborne Transport Conference sponsored by International Biomed in the spring, but it was canceled at the last minute. Several weeks later, the organizers released videos of scheduled speakers giving their talks, but it was less engaging and too easy to get distracted, Bowman said.

"There is a noticeable decrease in energy — you can't look around to feed off other's reactions when a speaker says something off the wall, or new, or contrary to expectations," he said. He also especially missed the social interactions, such as "missing out on the chance encounters in the hallway or seeing the same face in back-to-back sessions and figuring out you have shared interest." He was also sorry to miss the expo because neonatal transport requires a lot of specialty equipment, and he appreciates the chance to actually touch and see it in person.

Advantages of an Online Meeting

Despite the challenges, online meetings can overcome obstacles of in-person meetings, particularly for those in low- and middle-income countries, such as travel and registration costs, the hardships of being away from practice, and visa restrictions.

"You really have the potential to broaden your reach," Sibley said, noting that people in 157 countries participated in ACC.20.

Another advantage is keeping the experience available to people after the livestreamed event.

"Virtual events have demonstrated the potential for a more democratic conference world, expanding the dissemination of information to a much wider community of stakeholders," ESMO's spokesperson told Medscape.

Not traveling can actually mean getting more out of the conference, said Atisha Patel Manhas, MD, a hematologist/oncologist in Dallas, Texas, who attended ASCO. "I have really enjoyed the access aspect — on the virtual platform there is so much more content available to you, and travel time doesn't cut into conference time," she said, though she also missed the interaction with colleagues.

Others found that virtual conferences provided more engagement than in-person conferences. Marwah Abdalla, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of medicine and director of education for the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Columbia University Medical Center, New York City, felt that moderated Q&A sessions offered more interaction among participants. She attended and spoke on a panel during virtual SLEEP 2020, a joint meeting of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and the Sleep Research Society (SRS).

"Usually during in-person sessions, only a few questions are possible, and participants rarely have an opportunity to discuss the presentations within the session due to time limits," Abdalla said. "Because the conference presentations can also be viewed asynchronously, participants have been able to comment on lectures and continue the discussion offline, either via social media or via email." She acknowledged drawbacks of the virtual experience, such as an inability to socialize in person and participate in activities but appreciated the new opportunities to network and learn from international colleagues who would not have been able to attend in-person.

Ritu Thamman, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania, pointed out that many institutions have cut their travel budgets, and physicians would be unable to attend in-person conferences for financial or other reasons. She especially appreciated that the European Society of Cardiology had no registration fee for ESC 2020 and made their content free for all of September, leading to more than 100,000 participants.

"That meant anyone anywhere could learn," she said. "It makes it much more diverse and more egalitarian. That feels like a good step in the right direction for all of us."

Modarressi, who found ESC "exhilarating," similarly noted the benefit of such an equitably accessible conference. "Decreasing barriers and improving access to top-line results and up-to-date information has always been a challenge to the global health community," he said, noting that the map of attendance for the virtual meeting was "astonishing."

Given these benefits, organizers said they expect a future of hybrid conferences: physical meetings for those able to attend in person and virtual ones for those who cannot.

"We also expect that the hybrid congress will cater to the needs of people on-site by allowing them additional access to more scientific content than by physical attendance alone," Rautenstrauch said.

Everyone has been in reactive mode this year, Sibley said, but the future looks bright as they seek ways to overcome challenges such as socio-emotional needs and virtual expo spaces.

"We've been thrust into the virtual world much faster than we expected, but we're finding it's opening more opportunities than we had live," Sibley said. "This has catapulted us, for better or worse, into a new way to deliver education and other types of information.

"I think, if we're smart, we'll continue to think of ways this can augment our live environment and not replace it."

Tara Haelle is an independent health and science journalist and book author. She specializes in reporting on vaccines, pediatrics, women's health, mental health, and medical research. She can be reached on Twitter @tarahaelle.

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