It seems unreal to think of a time when upward of 100,000 healthcare professionals (HCPs), journalists, and consultants would gather in a large congress centre to discuss the latest scientific advances – but it happened, not so long ago. However, this year, with the onset of COVID-19, many medical congresses were moved to a virtual set-up or postponed until further notice. For many major congresses, the fully virtual set up was an alien concept. Encouragingly, they were met with positivity by their key stakeholders, as a preliminary survey found that the majority of HCPs were optimistic about the virtual setting.
That positivity remains alive today, with many congress attendees preferring the flexibility of the virtual format (in fact, you wouldn’t be mistaken if you saw a leading HCP sharing a selfie of themselves during a virtual session this year – some even sat in their home office drinking a beer!). The virtual format is more accessible, as supported by attendance figures at many congresses – for example, attendance increased by over one third for the European Respiratory Society (ERS) congress (2020 vs. 2019) and there was a record number of attendees at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2020 meeting. Additionally, the new format allows attendees to easily access relevant content – saving them the effort of trawling through lengthy congress centre halls to review posters and hoping for a seat in the presentation of their choice. Furthermore, there is no longer the predicament of conflicting presentations, as the recordings can for the most part be watched on demand.
While the general feedback was positive, some HCPs voiced concerns about networking – or lack thereof – with the virtual format. In order to mitigate this, organisers and presenters got creative, utilising social media channels to target their audiences and promote collaboration across the scientific community. An advantage of this new setting is that, with attendees reachable via computer, networking is less serendipitous and it is possible to enhance collaboration almost instantly following a presentation, which would not have been as easy in a traditional congress setting. As attendees are reliant upon virtual platforms for networking during the meetings, additional questions can be fed into livestream platforms to establish real-time discussions of the data that are more robust and long-lasting.
Another bonus of virtual congresses that should not be forgotten is the environmental and economic benefits of remote attendance. While a number of ways to make congresses more sustainable had previously been suggested, there was still a considerable environmental cost associated with conventional events. The onset of COVID-19 forced organisers to embrace digital solutions and reassess the necessity for participants to be onsite. The virtual format not only eliminates travel but also reduces associated costs – which we would hope to be channelled elsewhere (e.g., into research and development).
Moving forward, experts predict medical congresses will not return to how they were pre-COVID; instead, they are likely to remain virtual, with face-to-face meetings only as needed. While the future – in which we hope to see the provision of an effective vaccine for all soon – remains uncertain, one thing we can be sure of as we approach 2021 is that the virtual set up is now our new congress ‘norm’ for the year to come. Organisers will be encouraged to take key learnings from this year, adopt new digital strategies and ensure activities in 2021 are less scrappy, more sustainable, and work towards honing an optimal congress experience for all. As a famous statistician somewhat futuristically wrote back in 1983, it is time for ‘fewer conferences, better conferences, and conferences held for the right reason’.