Your medical conference is canceled. Now what?


Khadija Hafidh, MD, was already booked on a 14-hour, direct flight from Dubai to Los Angeles, when the American College of Physicians (ACP) announced it was canceling its internal medicine meeting scheduled for April.

Dr. Khadija Hafidh

Canceling her hotel reservation was not a problem, and she was assured a refund for the conference fee, but her airline ticket was another matter, said Dr. Hafidh, an internist and diabetologist with the Dubai Health Authority.

“The airline I booked my ticket with is willing to waive the change fees, but will deduct a cancellation fee if I choose not to take the trip,” Dr. Hafidh said in an interview. “The cancellation fees is $300. A bit steep I must admit.”

Dr. Hafidh now faces a dilemma: Lose the $300 and cancel, or change her flight dates to June for the American Diabetes Association meeting in Chicago.

“But then again, we aren’t sure if that meeting will take place,” Dr. Hafidh said. “A few weeks ago I thought this whole thing was just a storm in a tea cup. However when it was declared a pandemic yesterday, it brought about another dimension.”

More than 25 medical meetings and conferences across the globe have been canceled or postponed because of COVID-19 concerns. The sudden cancellations have caused reservation woes and travel headaches for thousands of physicians who planned to attend the meetings. Some societies are considering the idea of virtual conferences, while other associations have scrapped their meetings until next year.

For physicians facing a canceled conference, the most likely question is, what now? Read on for tips and suggestions.

Reservation refunds vary

Refunds on airfare because of conference cancellations differ, depending on the airline and where you were traveling. Some airlines, such as United Airlines, have waived all change fees for tickets issued March 3, 2020, through March 31, 2020, and passengers can change their dates for up to 12 months after the ticket was issued.

Full refunds often depend on whether your ticket was nonrefundable when purchased. Many airlines, such as Delta, are providing full refunds if the airline canceled your flight. JetBlue is waiving all change and cancellation fees for customers scheduled to travel March 10, 2020, through April 30, 2020.

Las Vegas–based dermatologist H.L. Greenberg, MD, was satisfied with the credit he received from Southwest Airlines after the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) canceled its Denver meeting. He and his staff were looking forward to the gathering, but he noted that the meeting would likely have been limited, even if it had take place as scheduled.

Dr. H.L. Greenberg, Las Vegas–based dermatologist

Dr. H.L. Greenberg

“I am disappointed that I won’t be able to meet with colleagues and industry to explore what the latest advances and interests are in dermatology,” he said. “Because many academic institutions were forbidding their faculty from traveling, the content of the meeting was going to be severely diminished. It’s just a rough time for everyone.”

Meanwhile, Asa Radix, MD, PhD, a New York–based internist, received a full refund for his Amtrak ticket to Boston when the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) scheduled for early March was converted to a virtual meeting. Dr. Radix, senior director of research and education at the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in New York, left another meeting in Brazil early to get to the Boston conference, he said.

“I was packed, but really that was a minor inconvenience,” he said in an interview. “I appreciate that they prioritized health concerns and changed to a virtual meeting. I received full refunds, no issues whatsoever. [It was] really great since I had no travel insurance.”

Check with your individual airline or train line for information about ticket refunds and credits. Many airlines are currently making special accommodations because of COVID-19. If your flight was covered by trip insurance, also called travel assistance, you are generally protected against unforeseen financial losses such as cancellations. The U.S. Department of Transportation provides this general online resource about airline refunds.


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