Much like many recent academic cardiology meetings, the American Heart Association (AHA)’s Quality of Care & Outcomes Research 2020 (#QCOR20) meeting took place virtually as well, owing to limitations posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Having attended AHA Scientific Sessions 2019 as an international delegate, this was both my first time attending QCOR as well as my first virtual QCOR. There was a wide range of content encompassing cardiovascular outcomes research, abstract presentations, plenary sessions and also an online interactive early career session via zoom.
So, as I logged into HeartHub (https://www.hearthubs.org/qcor ) for the sessions, in the comfort of my pajamas in a time zone a dozen hours apart, I found that the platform was rather unique, convenient and user-friendly. Talks were pre-recorded in good quality, but what really stood about the #QCOR20 format was the chat function that ran simultaneously with the ongoing talks. Completely flattening all medical hierarchies, this allowed for extensive, insightful and interactive discussions in an informal manner between speakers and attendees, irrespective of where they stood in the totem pole of medicine. This also served to obviate some of the conventional barriers of Q&A sessions at large meetings, allowing for more questions as well as the active engagement of more junior delegates.
Additionally, Virtual QCOR registration came with on-demand access to recorded lectures as well as other available conference materials including handouts for until three months after sessions, allowing one to catch up on sessions that might have been missed.
This was particularly useful, because, that very weekend SCAI also hosted their annual scientific sessions virtually. In a parallel world, I wouldn’t have dreamed of testing my efficiency with two parallel meetings. But the effort to attending both was significantly less than usual, including financially, involved no flights, commutes or time off work, and conveniently, I could switch between windows to “pop in” to the sessions of my interest at either meeting.
Despite some of these conveniences, I found myself missing the buzz of in-person meetings: the anticipation of results of late-breaking clinical trials, discussions of live cases, interaction and camaraderie of meeting colleagues face to face from the around the world, seeing new technology in the exhibit calls and especially, coming to think of it, the downtime off work and the absolute joy of travel.
Basically, the nerd, the wanderlust, and the human in me didn’t quite agree entirely with this virtual format. But that’s personal. And while we can agree that the science and education will certainly find its way to clinicians, many of the other goals and expectations of such annual academic conferences hinges on in-person meetings. These include small-group practical education, meeting and networking with peers, sharing of experiences, and potential collaborations borne thereof, none of which can be effectively achieved by a virtual meeting. From the perspective of scientific associations, building agendas, policy-making, professional skills development, and interactions with industry are all far better achieved with face-to-face interactions.
With restrictions to air travel, dwindling economies, social distancing measures and the varying commitments of the global medical community facing different phases of the pandemic in their respective countries, there has been much discussion on the future of medical conferences. Given the current climate, delegates (especially international) may re-evaluate priorities, with considerations of finances and if in-person presence was in fact, absolutely necessary.
And as many more international cardiology meetings are successfully converted into virtual events, and many more physicians adapt to this convenient method of education, it begs the question if this indeed will be the default arrangement for the foreseeable future? Further, into the future, academic societies ought to consider the possibility of combining the best of both worlds, so to speak, with a “hybrid” format, offering the in-person meeting as well as the virtual format, thus giving delegates who might prefer it, the option of attending sessions live from the comfort of their homes.
Also, while large global meetings with thousands of delegates might survive the pandemic and transition into hybrid conferences, what of the smaller meetings? Some of these are dedicated to niche specialties for smaller audiences, offering opportunities for hands-on learning and more intimate networking with experts and mentors. Only time will tell if such smaller meetings will indeed prevail.
Virtual meetings may have sufficiently filled the void of medical education and academic discourse that occurred as a result of cancellations of in-person conferences. Part of this void has also been filled by increased interactions between peers on social media platforms, particularly twitter, with renewed importance of the role of social media ambassadors. In more ways than one, virtual meetings may even have brought the world closer, with many of us logging in at the same time from different time zones. But let’s be real: We can dissect a trial on twitter all we like, but it will never be the same as the standing room only attendance at late-breaking clinical trial sessions. Also, let us seriously spare a thought for the principal investigator presenting his/her pioneering research to a computer screen: that is nowhere near the real thing.
The impact of COVID-19 on the course of major professional meetings has been huge. While Science will always find a way to reach us, meetings are so much more than just science. The whole world is adapting to a new normal and it will be interesting to see how this pans out for the medical community.
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