I suspect that COVID-19 and our one-year experiment with virtual conferencing may force us to rethink the future of medical meetings.
A long time ago I started asking questions about medical conferences. I saw them as expensive rubbish to support boring speakers that talked about things I could get in other media. I like medical students skipping the amphitheater in favor of 2x speed videos of gifted teachers / translators.
And during COVID, the inconveniences of medical meetings were only amplified with 8-hour Zoom experiences.
Why we had meetings to begin with
When thinking about conferences, it’s important to keep their history in mind. The lectures were the product of a medical generation that had to fly across the country and gather in a The Great Ballroom. Because The Great Ballroom was where the latest medical advances were announced and discussed. And if you weren’t at The Great Ballroom you wouldn’t know the latest advances. Conferences made sense when communication beyond our immediate spaces did not exist.
But the distribution of scientific advances no longer keeps pace once a year. It happens daily, if not every hour, as part of a global conversation. Beyond social media, the volume and variety of media for vocational education has grown enormously. So we don’t need The Great Ballroom to know what’s going on.
Meetings as a way to influence doctors
Bringing everyone together made sense when there was an opportunity to grease the skates for the biggest influencers in medicine: doctors. The confrontation of elegant exhibitions with young and cheerful representatives of the industry serves as a serious incentive for meeting planners. But more and more, doctors are employed and decisions about medication and even about devices go over our heads by taxpayers and other external actors. There is the awkward reality that pieces of doctor’s work can now be made by professionals and less expensive machines. And an AI doesn’t need a free dinner program to make a decision.
The real value proposition for medical meetings
But there may be a good reason to go to a meeting: to get together. That is why it is called a meeting. While we can get information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and share our ideas briefly on twitter, there may be real value in the real human connection. These connections, of course, are produced in whispered tones in the hallway outside the crowd. Or at 5 in the lobby bar (less whispering).
Virtual meetings do not allow for this kind of unique human connection.
Although he did not talk about the future of medical meetings, Benedict Evans was clear in a recent one Twitter thread:
There is a real challenge in trying to create a virtual event platform. Do you want to try to capture the metaphors and cues of a physical space, or at least the underlying concept of how people interact? how do you present it on a screen?
25 years after people thought the way to do online retail was to do a “virtual store” with “beautiful 3D renderings from your store,” we now have swarms of people who think we need beautiful 3D renderings of the your fair stand. I don’t think that works.
So here’s the math that goes through my head when deciding if you want to go to a meeting: The value of connections must outweigh the price of the meeting and the challenge of drowning the issue rugto own experts. This calculation has always been so. But COVID and the conference’s “virtual representation” have exposed the reality that many meetings may not be worth the time and expense.
2021 may be a good time to think about why we are going to conferences (virtual or IRL).
There may be good reasons. Or not.
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