I suspect COVID-19 and our one year experiment with virtual conferences may force us to rethink the future of medical meetings.
I began asking questions about medical conferences a long time ago. I saw them as expensive junkets to endure boring speakers talking about stuff that I could get on other media. Kinda like medical students who skip the the amphitheater in favor of 2x speed videos from gifted teachers/translators.
And during COVID the downsides of medical meetings were only amplified by 8-hour Zoom experiences.
Why we had meetings to begin with
When thinking about conferences it may important to consider their history. Conferences were the product of a medical generation that had to fly across the country and meet in a The Great Ballroom. Because The Great Ballroom was where the latest medical advances were announced and discussed. And if you weren’t in The Great Ballroom you wouldn’t know about the latest advances. Conferences made sense when communication beyond our immediate spaces didn’t exist.
But the sharing of scientific advances no longer happens at the pace of once-a-year. It happens daily, if not hourly, as part of a global conversation. Beyond social networks, the volume and variety of media for professional education has grown tremendously. So we don’t need The Great Ballroom to know what’s going on.
Meetings as a way to influence doctors
Getting everyone together made sense when there was the opportunity to grease the skids for medicine’s greatest influencers: the doctors. The boondoggle of fancy exhibits with jocular young industry representatives serves as a serious incentive for meeting planners. But increasingly, doctors are employees and the decisions regarding medication and even devices are made way over our heads by payers and other third-party actors. There’s the awkward reality that what chunks of a doctor’s work can now be done by less costly practitioners and machines. And an AI doesn’t need a free dinner program to render a decision.
The real value proposition for medical meetings
But there may be a really good reason to go to a meeting: to meet. That’s why it’s called a meeting. Despite the fact that we can get information 24/7 and share our ideas in short-form on twitter, there may be real value in real human connection. These connections, of course, happen with whispered tones in the hallway outside the plenary session. Or at 5 in the lobby bar (less whispering).
Virtual meetings don’t allow for this kind of unique human connection.
While he wasn’t talking about the future of medical meetings Benedict Evans had it right on a recent Twitter thread:
There is a real challenge in trying to make a virtual event platform. Do you want to try and capture the metaphors and signals of a physical space, or at least the underlying concept of how people interact? how do you present that on a screen?
25 years after people thought that the way to do retail online was to make a ‘virtual store’ with ‘beautiful 3D renders of your store’, we now have swarms of people who think we need beautiful 3D renders of your trade show stand. I don’t think that will work.
So here’s the math that goes on in my head when deciding whether to go to a meeting: The value of connections has to exceed the price point of the meeting and the challenge of droning subject matter experts. This calculus has always been the case, actually. But COVID and the ‘virtual rendering’ of the conference has laid bare the reality that many meetings may not be worth the time and expense.
2021 may be a good time to think about why we go to conferences — virtual or IRL.
There may be good reasons. Or not.
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