October 25th, 2020

(Not) Attending Professional Meetings in the COVID-19 Era

Public Health Poster, Philadelphia, 1918.

The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), our professional society, held its annual meeting this week, IDWeek.

As usual, I registered for and attended the meeting.

Of course I should have written “attended” the meeting, as instead of having an in-person meeting in Philadelphia (the original planned venue), it was entirely done online. Another “virtual” meeting due to COVID-19.

First, the good news. The preparation and content both were top-notch. Navigating the site, watching the presentations either live or on-demand, and reviewing the posters, I found the experience transparent and bug-free. (No pun intended.)

Happy to report there has been real progress in the virtual meeting user interface since the last conference I “attended”.

And there is gobs and gobs of content. (Or should that be “are gobs and gobs” — inquiring minds want to know!)

That’s the great thing about IDWeek — there’s so much to hear about that you eventually finish the meeting having learned a ton. The top experts in our field weigh in on what they’re experts about –what could be better? It’s especially useful when stepping outside one’s comfort zone.

Now, the not-so-good news — these online meetings can’t come close to replicating the experience of having them live.

To be sure, big in-person work meetings are far from perfect. They’re expensive, require travel (the agonies of which are legion), use up our carbon footprint, and gosh they are tiring from the socializing perspective. Sometimes you just want to sit in your hotel room and hide, and watch the major oral presentations and read the posters online.

Understandably, some doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other clinicians wouldn’t consider attending these meetings. Too time-consuming and expensive.

But you know what? Doing only the online part misses a lot of what’s great about live meetings. When attending them, you can focus on the meeting, mostly free of the distractions of work and home.

I spent most of last week at work, well, working.

Periodically last week, I’d remember that IDWeek was in fact still taking place — and then I’d have the double hit of guilt coming from both getting behind in work and the FOMO of not “being” at the conference. Yikes.

One colleague fought this problem by posting this:

Thank you for your email. I am attending a virtual conference, and will not be checking email until October 25. I will respond to your message as soon as possible.

Gives a new meaning to the term, “out of office message,” doesn’t it?

Furthermore, IDWeek in particular always has great community feel to it — these are our people. Really missed that.

What a great chance to network and reconnect. A clump of former ID fellows, now having launched their careers, gathers by a poster — how fun to catch up! A friend/colleague from New York or Los Angeles or Miami or Chicago or Philadelphia or Madrid or Sydney I’d not seen since the last conference — how are you? A person who’s recently made a big splash with a research paper, or a promotion, or by landing a big new job — congratulations!

And the personalities! Here are a few famous ones from my HIV world:  Carlos del Rio somehow knowing literally everyone in our field — how does he do that? Jeanne Marrazzo’s enthusiastic and supportive laugh. Joe Eron steps up to the microphone, and asks the most incisive post-presentation questions. John Bartlett with his yellow note pad, sitting in the front row capturing every pearl. (Dating myself a bit with that last one.)

No, canceling in-person academic meetings isn’t the biggest loss dealt us by the COVID-19 pandemic, far from it.

But it’s a loss nonetheless.

4 Responses to “(Not) Attending Professional Meetings in the COVID-19 Era”

  1. Loretta S says:

    I have a different take on virtual conferences. I attended one this weekend, and liked it a lot, especially since the presentations were recorded and can be watched or re-watched at a time that works for individual attendees, but the Q&A sessions were live. So we did get to interact with the speakers. OK, putting questions in a chat box isn’t exactly “interacting”, but it was still OK.

    I almost never attend conferences. I can’t afford the travel costs, plus the cost of registration. My institution gives us a tiny amount of money to attend conferences. And I mean tiny. So I’ve always felt like I was missing a lot of useful information. Because this conference was virtual, there were no travel costs and the registration fee for the weekend was quite reasonable. And I got lots of useful, clinically-relevant information.

    I’ve always felt that most conferences were missing out by not having both in-person sessions as well as virtual sessions for those who can’t attend. I expect that may change in the future.

    I do feel bad about all the people who normally would make their living setting up and/or working at these conferences. And cities are losing many millions of dollars because of cancelled conferences. We will see what the post-COVID-19 conference landscape looks like — whenever “post-COVID-19” finally occurs. 🙁

    • Paul Sax says:

      You are 100% correct that having the “virtual” option increases access to the meeting, and indeed IDWeek did smashingly well in this regard. Lots of people signed up who never attended before. Related — we’re delighted to be able to offer that this year for our post-graduate continuing education course, ID in Primary Care.

      The reason for posting this was that for those of us who do attend professional meetings (which are now appropriately shut down), there’s something missing, too.


  2. Kim Lucas says:

    Hi Paul,
    Thanks for sharing the link to the course. I wish I would have known about it sooner as I am unable to schedule time off to attend. I do have to say the cost of almost $900 is quite a lot (plus the cost of missing work ie lost income for those of us in private practice) relatively speaking for a remote review course.
    I have been taking advantage of several courses by The Mayo Clinic and The Cleveland Clinic. Thirty days access to the recordings is also relatively short. Most are ninety days. I understand the cost savings of no added cost of travel, food and lodging. Looks like great stuff though.

  3. John Leung MB,BS says:

    These online conferences have made a lot of differences, mostly on the positive side.
    As an octogenarian I don’t travel well for physical reasons and I was about to give up attending meetings altogether, including even local meetings. Suddenly, this online era makes it all possible for me once again, even submitting a poster presentation which I haven’t done for years. Over the past seven months, I’ve never “attended” so many meetings in my life.
    Even when the meetings are so closely scheduled with only minutes separating them, it becomes possible to attend them with judicious adjustments on the computer. In one extreme case, I had to attend a College annual scientific conference (where I had submitted the poster presentation) and an important house governing committee of my hospital on the same day. The online technology permitted me to “slip out” of the all day College conference and switched over to my hospital meeting for one hour to attend to the hospital affair. After that I switched back to the conference missing only one oral presentation. Thank you Zoom! Thank you Webinar!

HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

Biography | Disclosures | Summaries

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