Popularity of virtual conferences may mean a permanent shift


Missing out on networking and social interaction

Even when logistics run smoothly, virtual conferences must overcome two other challenges: the loss of in-person interactions and the potential for “Zoom burnout.”

“You do miss that human contact, the unsaid reactions in the room when you’re speaking or providing a controversial statement, even the facial expression or seeing people lean in or being distracted,” Ms. Sibley said.

Taher Modarressi, MD, an endocrinologist with Diabetes and Endocrine Associates of Hunterdon in Flemington, N.J., said all the digital conferences he has attended were missing those key social elements: “seeing old friends, sideline discussions that generate new ideas, and meeting new colleagues. However, this has been partly alleviated with the robust rise of social media and ‘MedTwitter,’ in particular, where these discussions and interactions continue.”

To attempt to meet that need for social interaction, societies came up with a variety of options. EULAR offered chatrooms, “Meet the Expert” sessions, and other virtual opportunities for live interaction. ASCO hosted discussion groups with subsets of participants, such as virtual meetings with oncology fellows, and it plans to offer networking sessions and “poster walks” during future meetings.

“The value of an in-person meeting is connecting with people, exchanging ideas over coffee, and making new contacts,” ASCO’s Dr. Hudis said. While virtual meetings lose many of those personal interactions, knowledge can also be shared with more people, he said.

The key to combating digital fatigue is focusing on opportunities for interactivity, ACC’s Ms. Sibley said. “When you are creating a virtual environment, it’s important that you offer choices.” Online learners tend to have shorter attention spans than in-person learners, so people need opportunities to flip between sessions, like flipping between TV channels. Different engagement options are also essential, such as chat functions on the video platforms, asking questions of presenters orally or in writing, and using the familiar hashtags for social media discussion.

“We set up all those different ways to interact, and you allow the user to choose,” Ms. Sibley said.

Some conferences, however, had less time or fewer resources to adjust to a virtual format and couldn’t make up for the lost social interaction. Andy Bowman, MD, a neonatologist in Lubbock, Tex., was supposed to attend the Neonatal & Pediatric Airborne Transport Conference sponsored by International Biomed in the spring, but it was canceled at the last minute. Several weeks later, the organizers released videos of scheduled speakers giving their talks, but it was less engaging and too easy to get distracted, Dr. Bowman said.

“There is a noticeable decrease in energy – you can’t look around to feed off other’s reactions when a speaker says something off the wall, or new, or contrary to expectations,” he said. He also especially missed the social interactions, such as “missing out on the chance encounters in the hallway or seeing the same face in back-to-back sessions and figuring out you have shared interest.” He was also sorry to miss the expo because neonatal transport requires a lot of specialty equipment, and he appreciates the chance to actually touch and see it in person.

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