October 12th, 2021

A Few Thoughts on “Attending” Virtual Meetings

Ouistiti (marmoset), from Buffon and de Sève’s Quadrupeds (1754). Apparently the French say “ouistiti” instead of “cheese” before a photo — perhaps somebody who’s actually from France can confirm or refute.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, before SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, many of us in academic medicine attended in-person scientific meetings that took place annually around the world.

I was one such person — usually 2-3 times a year. My primary charge at each of these meetings was to assemble the best, or most interesting, or most controversial clinical science and summarize it. Usually, I did this the weekend after the meeting, writing it shortly after walking my dog Louie on Sunday.

He was a very helpful editor.

I called them Really Rapid Reviews©, posted them here, and sent a stern letter to the US copyright and patent offices saying that under no circumstance could anyone copy them and sell them for profit. My crack legal team would be all over violators with the full force of the law.

While that last part (the copyright-patent-legal part) might not be true, the rest of the above narrative is 100% verifiable in these archives.

But then COVID-19 happened. Virtual meetings replaced the in-person scientific ones. I was so overwhelmed after Virtual CROI 2020 — through no fault of the conference, hey it was March 2020 — that I barely remember any of the content, though I did manage to cover one very important study.

Fast-forward roughly 18 months to now. Yes, many of us still “attend” (note the quotes) these virtual meetings — which means for most of us that you go to work as usual and try to snatch some free time to watch pre-recorded presentations on things that sound interesting.

Or you don’t. “Many sessions are like articles I’ve put aside and never get around to reading,” says Dr. Neil Clancy, offering up a perfect analogy. The problem? “Virtual really doesn’t help me disengage from clinic or other duties,” says Dr. Woc-Colburn. Exactly.

If this isn’t enough of a struggle — and believe me, it is — each meeting’s website has a different format, fraught with perilous glitches, sign-in pages that forget who you are, distracting “rooms” and “avatars”, and search function dead-ends. Don’t they know by now that the search function is the #1 key feature in all of these virtual meetings?

Plus, what about the non-meeting activity that happens at meetings? Says Dr. Neil Stone, “Nothing quite replaces the interpersonal connections made at conferences. The conversations you have over a drink at the end of the day are often far more important than sitting listening to the talks, the content of which you often know of in advance.” Indeed this is true!

Grrrr. You can tell I’m not a huge fan of the virtual format — it’s wearing me out.

But for the sake of argument, let me take the side of the virtual meeting proponents.

  • There’s that COVID-19 thing — yep, still here, and putting crowds together doesn’t sound like the safest activity. Remember the Biogen Leadership Conference?
  • For people with little flexibility in their work or family responsibilities, in-person meetings are out of the question — hence virtual meetings offer the opportunity for a much broader group to attend. No need for the quotation marks around the word attend this time.
  • Regardless of your work or home duties, in-person meetings cost a lot, take a ton of time, and are absolute beasts from a carbon footprint standpoint. Let’s not feed that beast!

These are all legitimate points.

Which is why my hope for a post-pandemic world — whatever that means — is that we’ll have the option of both. That’s what’s planned for CROI 2022, and expecting the same from many others.

Looks like you agree:

Oh, and since someone asked, the Really Rapid Review© of two recent meetings are all but written. No, they’re not so rapid anymore, but who’s keeping track these days.

17 Responses to “A Few Thoughts on “Attending” Virtual Meetings”

  1. Daniel Skiest says:

    You captured my exact sentiments. While as you point out there are benefits to having virtual meetings, I am looking forward to attending Old fashion, in person meetings In the coming months and years., I don’t think virtual meetings can replace the in person interactions and the ability to be completely engaged. (And it’s nice to get away and see your old friends and colleagues.)

  2. heather wray says:

    You have to be disciplined when attending virtual meetings. Cancel clinics, rounds, teaching commitments etc just as you would when going away to a meeting. Lock yourself in an office with a flask of coffee (and don’t answer the door if anyone knocks). Attend the sessions that you’ve selected in advance, make notes and ask questions.
    What is difficult is doing this when you’re based in EU and the meeting is in the US, and I would imagine it’s even worse the other way round….but to get the most out of that fee you’ve paid you have to bite the bullet and stay up late/get up early!

    What I especially like about virtual meetings is that you can attend consecutive sessions that would have been in distant parts of the congress venue. Having spent what feels like years of my life sprinting from hall to hall at the Berlin Messe only to find there are no seats left for the good bits, I really, really love virtual meetings!

    • Gordon Huth says:

      I tend to agree with you, Heather. I think in-person meetings and interactions with colleagues may be more important for those who do high-level research and/or clarify what’s practice-changing for bedside clinicians. But you may be one of those researchers/clarifiers, I don’t know.

      I certainly spent a lot of time and expense chasing the talks at IDSA only to find myself sitting on a windowsill trying to focus while being distracted by the masses coming and going.

      And I didn’t find your comment patronizing, either.

  3. heather wray says:

    sorry, just re-read my previous comment, realized how patronizing it is, and have no idea how to delete it. I’ll get my coat….

  4. Loretta S says:

    I spent years longingly reading brochures and online descriptions of in-person conferences that I would have loved to attend. But it usually was not possible, for a number of reasons. The number 1 reason was always cost. In my academic position, I get a tiny amount of travel money each year. It’s not enough to cover even the registration fee for most conferences, no less airfare, hotel and food. In my clinical position, I get no travel money. So those in-person conferences were simply not affordable. I always wondered why most conferences did not offer a virtual option.

    With virtual conferences, the cost savings are tremendous. There is usually an option to view recorded sessions I might have missed. And I do usually manage to “attend” at a time when I don’t need to be present at either job. So for me, virtual conferences — or, an in-person conference with a virtual option — work out well.

    I think part of the reason I am fine with virtual attendance at a conference is my goal(s) for attending. I am always looking for up-to-date, clinically-relevant information that I can apply in my practice quickly. And I am always chasing CEs! 🙂 So as long as I’m getting both of those, I’m good with virtual conferences or a virtual option. And being able to catch a session I missed later, if need be, works out well for me. From looking at Paul’s Twitter poll, it appears I am in the minority.

    • Paul Sax says:

      But that minority is very sizable. That’s why offering both is the best option for meeting organizers!

  5. Joel Gallant says:

    The recent virtual IDWeek felt like a big step backwards in terms of technology. Was I the only one bothered by the steady stream of “likes,” hearts, and other emojis that burst up from the bottom of the screen whenever the speaker said anything the least bit inspiring? I felt more like a teenager on TikTok than a physician “attending” a scientific conference!

    • heather wray says:

      Certainly agree with that! We also get it a lot at work-related virtual meetings where the bosses are presenting. I suppose when you can’t butter up the bosses in person, you have to think of another way…..

  6. Parya Saberi says:

    I totally agree with your perspective AND would like to add that another benefit of virtual meetings is chance introductions that may not have been possible during in-person meetings. During IAS2020, a researcher from Iran (which is also where I’m from) noted that I was in a meeting room and reached out to me for research collaborations. We have been working on a project ever since and will be submitting our first paper for publication soon. For in-person meetings, she would have been unlikely to be able to get a visa or afford the costs. I’ve also in turn found myself more “courageous” to approach experts and researchers I admire to learn more about their projects and discuss future collaborations. I guess that’s a potential benefit for more junior faculty like me.

  7. Mark Shaefer says:

    Paul, thanks for raising this discussion point. I agree with most of what has been said. I have tried to be diligent when I attend a vritual conference and it does make it a little easier to switch from one session to another than when you have to run between live sessions across a huge meeting venue. The one thing that is difficult to replace is the opportunity to go through the poster hall and have a discussion with the presenter or discuss a poster with the other attendees at the same time. If there is a good search function you can find most of the important posters but sometimes you miss that important poster that the search did not find. I’m hoping that CROI does have a live component in 2022, I’m ready for a break from virtual.

  8. Justin Davis says:

    I mean, the last virtual conference I attended was on my annual leave (during a lockdown period so stuck in my home regardless) but attending in this circumstance = playing my playstation on the couch whilst the laptop was open next to me playing the conference. I guess it kinda works? I did hear some rather interesting talks in amongst the gaming but yeah, it isn’t quite the same.

  9. Shishir Gokhale says:

    Paul, You have captured the essence of my thoughts.

    Yes there are advantages and disadvantages of F2F (another word recently coined!) and virtual meetings. Decades old habits and expectations of F2F can not be met by virtual. We observed it during our virtual classroom activities. The fringe benefits of F2F meetings (making new friends, strengthening acquaintances, visiting new institutes, places and bringing home memorabilia for self, family and friends as well as juxta-posting conference and vacation) are only some obvious aspects.

    Virtual are financially and time-wise more affordable but do not capture the spirit of “meeting”.

    I would prefer F2F over virtual.


  10. Pranay Sinha says:

    One drawback of in-person meetings is the opportunity cost of attending one session when there’s another one you’re interested in at the same time. It can lead to crippling FOMO (fear of missing out) and a drinking-from-the-fire-hydrant feeling reminiscent of medical school. A hybrid model would solve this as you could see some presentations in person and the catch up on the others later.

  11. Elyse Muller says:

    I attended 8 hours straight of daily sessions via the virtual conference – something I just couldn’t do at an on-site meeting. Freezing-cold hotel ballrooms with uncomfortable chairs? Not this time. I could move, stretch, eat lunch, change locations … all while being captivated by the sessions. The timing of the sessions were much better managed in the virtual environment as were questions (less rambling at the microphone and more “to the point” questions led to more time for Q&A). Face to face is great but if the main goal is education rather than networking, I think virtual is a very attractive option. The key word is option…I hope meetings will offer both in-person and virtual!

  12. Joel Gallant says:

    I’m attending the hybrid EACS in London in person, my first face-to-face conference since since the pandemic began. It’s strange to be sitting in a large, largely empty conference room watching a bunch of speakers give pre-recorded virtual talks on a big screen. In many cases there’s no one on stage at all. It’s as though the Zoom meeting has been turned into a spectator sport. But at least it’s easier to get a table for lunch than at most conferences.

  13. Tariq says:


    Virtual meeting are like virtual.

    Face to face meeting helps develop our social skills, making new friends and exploring a new city. Virtual meetings are virtual.

    I am NOT in favor of these virtual meetings and would rather have return to normal life.

HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

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