COMMENTARY

Virtual APA vs the Real Thing: Which Is Better?

Dinah Miller, MD

May 07, 2021

Every spring, I look forward to attending the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting. It has become a ritual that starts many months before the actual conference.

Submissions for presentations are due in September, so the planning often starts in the late summer. Hotel and plane reservations are made in January, and the meeting itself begins in May.

Dr Dinah Miller

The city that hosts the event changes each year but, for me, many things do not. The Clinical Psychiatry News editorial board meeting takes place on Monday morning at 7 a.m., and I scour the program for what sessions to attend. In recent years, I have made a point of writing an article for about one of the sessions while still at the meeting – in 2019 I wrote about the improv-acting workshops I attended – something that just doesn't translate to a Zoom experience.

I go with the same friend every year, I always attend the Hopkins alumni reception, and I organize dinner at a nice restaurant for friends. I have collected so many funny stories and memories over the years that it would be hard to catalog them all. There was the time in Toronto that I set up a meal at a restaurant named Susur — a meal like no other I've ever had — and the check arrived with a jaw-dropping sum that I had not anticipated. In San Diego, we watched a gorgeous sunset over the Pacific Ocean from the veranda of the Hotel Coronado. There was the time I sunbathed on the beach in Waikiki with my book editor, and the notable distress when my colleague's husband called from the airport to say he was not permitted to board his plane in Baltimore to join us in California! There are funny stories, but there is the sadness that one friend who joined us for so many of these events has died.

I always find the program options to be overwhelming: There is so much going on at once that it can be hard to decide what to go to. I try to attend a mix of sessions, some that are inspiring or entertaining, and others that will be informative for clinical issues.

The speakers have been incredible and over the years I've heard then-Vice President Joseph Biden, retired quarterback Terry Bradshaw, Oliver Sacks, Alan Alda, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and perhaps my favorite – Lorraine Bracco, the actress who played Melfi on "The Sopranos" — to name just a few. And, of course, the opportunity to get the continuing medical education credits I need for licensing is just one more reason to attend.

Last year in May I was still adjusting to my "new" career from home with a computer screen. I had been scheduled to participate in several panels for the meeting in Philadelphia, but extra computer hours had no appeal. And while the fatigue of doing telemental health has eased, I still avoid extra hours interacting with my computer screen and I did not attend this year's meeting. Without the lure of friends, fun, and the novelty of being somewhere new, my APA experience would have to wait for real life.

Virtual APA has had a drop in participation. In 2019, the last real-life convention in San Francisco, there were 700 scientific sessions and 11,000 professionals in attendance. This year's virtual conference hosted 135 sessions with more than 7,000 attendees. Attendance was down, but so were costs associated with live conventions and the APA is considering the addition of a virtual component when the annual meeting returns to the in-person venue.

Tom Abdallah is a medical student at Weill Cornell Medicine–Qatar in Education City. He has never attended an in-person APA annual meeting, but he joined for this year's virtual sessions. "The scientific sessions were fantastic and diverse. Networking was limited in comparison to in-person conferences. The meeting was very well organized, and it gave me the opportunity to attend without worrying about travel."

Steven Daviss, MD, a psychiatrist in Maryland, also commented on the ease and financial benefit of attending the meeting from his home office. He calculated that the cost was much less: $350 for virtual APA, compared with approximately $3,500 for the real thing, allowing for transportation, hotels, meals out, and lost income. "But," said  Daviss, "engagement with colleagues was minimal."

APA Assembly member Annette Hanson, MD, has continued to go into work throughout the pandemic. Still, she noted that meetings and committee work have made sure she does not miss out on the "Zoom fatigue" that everyone else is feeling. The virtual APA was tiring for her.

"It was brutal. There was the APA Assembly 1 weekend, right after evening Zoom reference committee meetings the week before. Then virtual APA the next weekend. By the end of the week, I had worked every day for 3 weeks straight, including my more-than-full-time job!"

It has been a challenging time, to say the least, and it has certainly helped that videoconferencing has allowed us to be there for our patients and for each other in so many different circumstances. Former APA President Paul Summergrad, MD, talked about how virtual meetings can be very good as educational tools, but he conveyed what I have been feeling in a sentence: "I miss the social aspect of meetings."

Please get your vaccine, and I hope to see you in New Orleans next May!

Miller is coauthor of "Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, both in Baltimore.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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