Disclosures: Calabrese, Lane, Liew and Patty-Resk report no relevant financial disclosures.
In-person medical meetings represent an opportunity for clinicians and professionals to gather, socialize and share knowledge face-to-face — all rituals that have been put on hold in the age of COVID-19.
However, that’s beginning to change. After more than 2 years of remote gatherings via Zoom and other online platforms, rheumatologists are now again preparing for a busy season of in-person meetings, while at the same time weighing benefits and risks during a pandemic that refuses to completely fade away.
Back into the swing of things
“I think that it’s good to get back together for in-person meetings, and part of going to an in-person meeting is informally talking to people and asking questions that come up in the talks that you might not put in the chat or ask over Zoom,” Nancy Lane, MD, of the University of California Davis Health System, told Healio. “It’s great to be back to having a more interpersonal exchange.”
Lane’s assessment of the return to in-person meetings, and the eagerness to get back to a more personal connection, is one shared by other rheumatologists as well.
“Everybody wants to get back, I want to get back, but there is a bit of apprehension about what the configuration will be,” said Leonard H. Calabrese, DO, professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University, RJ Fasenmyer chair of Clinical Immunology at the Cleveland Clinic, and chief medical editor of Healio Rheumatology. “There is a virtual fatigue that everybody has. Virtual meetings are good for a lot of things, such as getting data out, but they have fallen short of the mark of being highly interactive.”
Meanwhile, in-person meetings can allow attendees to disconnect from the distractions of daily life, whether they be personal or clinical, and engage with the educational materials.
“The education and thoughts that are shared at these meetings cannot be captured by online platforms,” Cathy Patty-Resk, MSN, RN, CPNP, a nurse practitioner at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, in Detroit, and a member of the board of directors for the Rheumatology Nurses Society, told Healio.
However, despite these upsides, increasing travel costs and the ongoing pandemic have made the decision to attend large, face-to-face gatherings — or not — difficult for many rheumatologists.
According to Lane, the cost of attending meetings in a live format can lead to a disrupted work schedule, to say nothing of the monetary costs of travel, particularly flights, which ballooned in price since the omicron spike ended in March.
“With the cost of travel, we all may be doing more online meetings,” Lane said.
There are also the outright infection risks related to COVID-19. However, Calabrese, who caught a breakthrough COVID-19 infection from a live meeting in 2021, said the pandemic and related waves of subvariants have helped to inform those considering attending of the potential risks involved.
“There are concerns, but everyone, I think, is itching to get back to meetings for so many reasons,” Calabrese said.
‘Opportunities flourish, passions are ignited’
For physicians who have recently attended in-person meetings, the experience has been a demonstration of the benefits, as well as drawbacks, such gatherings can offer.
“The two meetings meeting I attended in April and May of this year made me consider which parts of the meeting are more essential in terms of being in-person,” Jean Liew, MD, a clinical researcher at Boston University, told Healio. “This meeting was hybrid and there were some kinks that had to be worked out; we weren’t able to interact fully with the people who were virtual.”
Additionally, in-person attendees were unable to ask questions of virtual presenters and virtual attendees were unable to access the in-person poster sessions at all, Liew said.
However, even consider the potential drawbacks of in-person meetings, the bonding and involvement they offer is not something virtual meetings have yet been able to replicate, according to Patty-Resk.
“The socialization, sharing of experiences and various opportunities available are very important aspects of in-person meetings,” said Patty-Resk. “If it wasn’t for in-person meetings, I wouldn’t have been able to become so involved in different platforms of pediatric rheumatology.
“Opportunities flourish, passions are ignited, and the rheumatology world becomes connected,” she added. “As a result, advocacy and improvements in treatment availability to children were the two things I was able to personally fight for and help make a difference.”
Another important aspect of in-person gatherings — the opportunity to socialize outside the meeting space — has also been missing in the recent run of virtual meetings, according to Liew.
“Having completely virtual meetings has taken away interactions outside of the meeting itself, and I think that is a separate but related issue that drove me to consider taking the in-person option for hybrid meetings,” Liew said.
Beyond purely social reasons, meeting in-person offers opportunities for collaboration that are not as common or possible at all in virtual settings, she added.
“The conferences I attended re-demonstrated the importance of having meetings around the conference,” Liew said. “By this, I mean the meetings that we schedule for smaller groups to discuss working on specific projects.
“I also mean planning to meet with others over coffee or for meals to discuss research ideas,” Liew added. “As someone who is early-career, I appreciate being able to spend time with my mentor as well as other established experts in the field in a more informal context.”
In-person gatherings also provide attendees the chance to disconnect from their phones and laptops and focus on material being presented — something that is impossible in a virtual setting, according to Lane.
“If you go away to a meeting, the only thing you’re doing is focusing on the meeting and socializing,” Lane said. “You’re not around your house, you’re not around your office.”
However, despite the advantages of in-person meetings, many rheumatologists say there is still a place for continued hybrid and virtual set-ups — even in a post-pandemic world — as attendees and organizers look toward the future of these events.
Meeting in the future
Virtual meetings come with their own list of benefits. As well as including audiences who might not otherwise be able to attend due to cost, disability or other obligations, virtual meetings offer new ways to conduct business, such as offering the necessary time to read posters and allow presenters to offer updates from anywhere in the world.
“I remain a big proponent of virtual posters, so long as the platform allows for the appropriate kinds of interactions,” Liew said. “I find large poster sessions overwhelming. It can also be quite difficult to digest a poster in real time as you are standing in front of it.”
Virtual and hybrid set-ups are also beneficial for attendees with personal or professional obligations that prevent them from traveling across the country or around the world, according to Patty-Resk.
“Hybrid and virtual are good for those that are unable to travel at certain times due to constraints such as family or work obligations,” said Patty-Resk. “Someone has to hold down the fort while some are away.”
For these reasons, the future of academic and medical meetings will likely include aspects of in-person and virtual meetings integrated into overall experience.
“I am probably in the minority, but I haven’t minded virtual meetings,” Liew said. “I find that my involvement in a virtual meeting is at a higher level and intensity than my involvement at in-person meetings.”
As in-person attendance becomes more of a regular occurrence for rheumatologists, Lane predicted that there will be a resurgence, as people return to meetings that they have not attended in several years, followed by an “evening out,” where potential attendees become more selective.
“I think the pandemic, which is far from over, has really made us think a lot about how we spend our time,” Lane said.
In addition, although traditional, in-person meetings will likely always have a place in medicine, the number of attendees is something that may shift in the future, she added.
“There will always be a group of people who will go to the meetings for personal reasons,” Lane said. “As I look to the future, I think I’m going to be looking at the hybrid approach. I like the opportunity to decide to go to a meeting in person or to do it virtually. Because of the virtual opportunity, if it is available in the future, I will probably go to less meetings in person.”
For Liew, providing virtual options for would-be attendees is matter of equity for people would otherwise miss these meetings entirely. As such, any move away from virtual and hybrid set-ups should not be undertaken lightly, she said.
“Hybrid meetings are important for those who cannot attend in-person due to other obligations including family obligations, concerns about COVID-19, and travel costs,” Liew said. “This is an equity issue. I feel strongly that ‘going back to the way things were’ is not beneficial and continues to exclude a lot of people.”