At issue: Endocrinologists, diabetes specialists reflect on year of virtual conferences
The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a need to avoid any large, in-person gatherings for most of 2020, and that included an unprecedented change for medical meetings and conferences.
Organizers behind medical conferences around the world, large and small, were forced this year to do something never done before: to pivot with little to no notice from a well-planned, tightly scheduled in-person event to an all-virtual experience, often relying on never-before-used platforms and asking presenters and attendees to interact in new ways. The new formats brought surprises, successes and headaches along the way, and for many, new lessons learned.
Healio and Endocrine Today spoke with endocrinologists, diabetes care and education specialists and meeting organizers in the United States to see how they navigated the shift from in-person to virtual events — what went right, what went wrong, and what was confusing — and what each hopes to see going forward in 2021 and beyond.
Read on for comments from Louis H. Philipson, MD, PhD, FACP; Susan Weiner, MS, RDN, CDCES, FADCES; Miriam S. Udler, MD, PhD; Andrea Dunaif, MD; Jonathan D. Leffert, MD, FACP, FACE, ECNU; the North American Menopause Society’s chief operating officer, Carolyn Develen; and the Endocrine Society’s interim chief executive officer, Robert Lash, MD.
Louis H. Philipson, MD, PhD, FACPProfessor of Medicine
Director of the Kovler Diabetes Center
University of Chicago School of Medicine
Former President of Medicine and Science, American Diabetes Association
The American Diabetes Association did an unbelievable job of putting together an all-virtual meeting in, essentially, 2 months, for something like 14,000 people. I helped set up a few sessions and, of course, listened to several. The ADA allowed presenters to record their talks ahead of time, so there were minimal technical issues, and people tried to set up meetings at the same time.
The issue is that you cannot duplicate what happens in person. You can get a wonderful education almost anywhere. What is different is what happens outside the classroom. People have come to realize that this is what they pay the big bucks for.
The past few years at meetings, I actually attended very few sessions, because I was in the hallways interacting with colleagues. Plus there are the events before and after the conference. Those are difficult to duplicate.
That said, there is flexibility with this format, in that you can meet people anytime, anyplace, so that the necessity of linking meetings to a particular event is less urgent. We are learning that.
What we are also learning is you cannot sit in a chair for 4 hours. It doesn’t work. Other meetings were interesting in that regard. For the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD), my lecture was at 2 a.m., and it ran from 1 to 3 a.m. I gave my talk in real time. The speaker after me had trouble connecting. All the while, you had a meter at the bottom of the screen showing how many attendees were logged on in any given moment, so you knew there were people out there, but of course, you couldn’t see them. That was a tense moment. After EASD, I gave essentially the same talk for a CME meeting in India associated with the ADA, just a few days later. A small meeting in India is 15,000 people. They did a great job.
This is the world we live in now. There is no going back. The advantages of having everyone in the world possibly see your meeting changes the game completely. It also puts things on a more level playing field for some. It is going to reduce costs. It allows us to have more trainees at meetings. If there is a small meeting in China, people from all over the globe can drop in.
Since the pandemic, I have been setting up virtual meetings here in Chicago for our seven major medical centers. We do this once a month now, where we have local speakers giving case presentations or other information. Just recently we hosted Carol Levy, MD, Robert H. Eckel, MD, and Tracey Brown, CEO of the ADA. We give very little notice and no honoraria for these talks, but people participate because they want to increase the communication during this time. Running that has shown me what this can become. That interaction is important, but we must learn how best to structure it going forward.
Susan Weiner, MS, RDN, CDCES, FADCESEndocrine Today Editorial Board Member
Owner and Clinical Director, Susan Weiner Nutrition PLLC
At first I wasn’t sure how to approach and embrace virtual conferences. Now I’m excited to attend several conferences that I might not have been able to attend in-person due to distance, time or cost. I’m still adjusting and embracing a whole new learning and networking environment. To make the most of my time, I take a “virtual tour” of the conference — usually a video link is available — to figure out how to navigate sessions, product theaters and networking events.
Since I am running my busy telehealth practice and consulting business out of my home now, I build the conference schedule into my work schedule, so I can watch sessions live that are not offered on demand. For me, scheduling is the only way to participate in a conference while staying on task with my work and other important appointments on my “to-do” list, which always includes physical activity. I also stand and move around during sessions, which helps keep me mentally focused with the increased amount of screen time. As a side note, the sessions I’ve been asked to prerecord for conferences are the most difficult for me to watch! My camera angle and background views have continued to improve over time.
I miss seeing my friends and colleagues at in-person conferences and have suggested we have “lunch” together using a web-based platform. This is a fun way to catch up and connect with folks you typically would see a few times a year. I also make one-on-one appointments for meet-ups with some folks, which reminds me of the incredible moments in the convention hallways that we often took for granted during in-person meetings.
I’m looking forward to seeing my colleagues and friends again soon, but until that time, let’s continue to reach out to each other and connect during virtual meetings.
Miriam S. Udler, MD, PhDAssistant Professor, Harvard Medical School
Attending in Endocrinology, Massachusetts General Hospital
Director, MGH Diabetes Genetics Clinic
Investigator, MGH Center for Genomic Medicine
I happen to have a 6-month-old infant. For EASD, the session I was presenting was in the morning, but on Vienna, Austria, time, so 3 a.m. Eastern time. I was very grateful that I could record my presentation ahead of time. I worried that I would conduct a live, 20-minute talk at 3 in the morning that would be interrupted by a baby crying. That said, there was a small part that was live. So, I went to bed early, woke up at 1:45 a.m., joined the other speakers and the moderator, we went live at 2:30 a.m. for the Q&A portion. Even during that time, I was worried that the baby would wake up. When you are presenting live and hundreds of people are watching, with potentially hundreds more accessing it later, it is a very weird feeling. I got dressed up because I knew I would be on camera. Yet, you’re in your living room and it is the middle of the night. It helped I was among colleagues and friends during the session and felt so supported.
My first virtual experience was in June with the ADA Scientific Sessions. I was an attendee. That was my first time seeing a very large meeting — more than 10,000 people — virtually. I was very impressed. I also attended a smaller precisions medicine meeting virtually, and just recorded a presentation for the upcoming meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics. One nice thing about attending virtual meetings is you don’t feel like you have to be in one place when there are multiple talks you are interested in. Having that ability to go back and listen to talks later, on-demand, is great. I also thought ADA did a great job with the live discussion that accompanied the prerecorded talks. That brought a nice, interactive aspect to the meeting.
Since this is all new, there is lots of room for growth in this space. I like how some virtual meetings make it look like you are still in a conference room, or walking in a room, virtually, and imagine there will be a lot of creative development with such interfaces in the future. A big challenge is handling the time differences. Also, it can be surprising how far in advance some things need to happen to facilitate the meetings. For example, for the American Society of Human Genetics, I recorded my session with the other presenters all together, several weeks ahead of the actual meeting. Typically, we are used to tweaking our talks the night before, so that has been a shift and a challenge, especially when we don’t have as much notice. It can also be a challenge to find an appropriate place to do the recording. Sometimes organizers request you have a certain background behind you, and you have to find a quiet room and hope no one bothers you.
It will be nice to have some more integration going forward. Some of the capabilities that are possible with these virtual meetings would serve us all well in future meetings.
Overall, I was so impressed by everyone’s ability to quickly adapt to the situation and how wonderful it has been for the scientific community. There are, obviously, horrible things going on in the world right now, and life is not normal. At the same time, it is beautiful to see science continuing to persevere. It provides hope and motivation to continue your work. There is still a venue to share your science.
Andrea Dunaif, MDEndocrine Today Editorial Board Member
Professor and Chief
Hilda and J. Lester Gabrilove Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Bone Disease
Mount Sinai Health System
For presenting at conferences this year, I’ve had to become my own videographer, sound person, film editor and overall expert in creating video presentations for a variety of platforms. This task has included finding quiet spaces to record, because seemingly trivial background noise or my colleagues speaking may be picked up on the recording, as well as reading tech reviews so I can purchase the correct lighting and recording equipment. It’s also quite challenging to make a dynamic, error-free 30- to 40-minute presentation speaking directly into a camera without the connection to a live audience. I have new respect for YouTube influencers.
I’ve already presented at one meeting this year and have talks for ObesityWeek and the Androgen Excess PCOS Society coming up. The Endocrine Society annual meeting is already scheduled to be virtual next March. There is a learning curve, and I'm getting better at making these presentations. However, with so much COVID-related disruption, adding the new task of self-producing high-quality videos can become a bit overwhelming.
Since meetings will likely remain virtual well into next year, my advice is for institutions to create dedicated studios with technical support where faculty can create professional presentations and participate in broadcasts with appropriate sound quality and lighting. We’re adapting space in our division for this purpose.
Jonathan D. Leffert, MD, FACP, FACE, ECNUEndocrine Today Editorial Board Member
Managing Partner, North Texas Endocrine Center
Past President, American Association of Clinical Endocrinology
I’ve been involved most recently with the AACE Innovation in Cardiometabolic Clinical Practice virtual conference. The ability to view a conference in a virtual environment in my home really allowed me to focus on the information being delivered. I was more focused than I’ve been at conferences in person. This allowed me to get more out of the presentations. This conference had a wide variety of talks, and the speakers were all outstanding. The questions were quite relevant and clinically applicable.
Although I enjoy seeing and talking with people in person at conferences, the virtual format with live speakers and workshops allowed me to use my time wisely and maximize the information I could get out of it. In the future, I think having fewer in-person conferences and more in the virtual setting might be useful. For example, we might have one conference per year where we go to meet up with our colleagues and others where we listen to well-put together informational sessions at the office or at home.
Carolyn DevelenChief Operating Officer
North American Menopause Society (NAMS)
NAMS made the decision to move to a virtual offering on June 26. We had been monitoring the ongoing spread of COVID-19 around the globe, and the board made the decision that protecting the health, safety and well-being of our annual meeting attendees — and ultimately the women they serve — was our top priority. The global nature of COVID-19, rapidly escalating health concerns, and ongoing travel and other restrictions made it impossible for NAMS to hold the annual meeting as a live event. This decision was not taken lightly, as the annual meeting is the hallmark of the organization’s educational offerings, and the networking it provides is something everyone looks forward to every year.
The scientific program committee and the board wanted to hold true to the format that had been planned for the live event. Speakers and sessions had already been confirmed, so we were able to convert those into the virtual offering by recording individual presentations and then gathering the speakers via Zoom for the live Q&A portion of the meeting.
The decision to hold the Q&A sessions the following week allowed participants 1 week to view the presentations at their convenience and then determine which of the Q&A sessions they would like to participate in. Therefore, they were not required to commit to watching everything at once and then joining the Q&A.
We launched on Sept. 28 and the initial response has been extremely positive. Attendees have indicated they enjoy watching the presentations, viewing the posters and abstracts, and visiting the exhibit hall and product theater.
What we have heard loud and clear from our participants and members is how much they value the live event. No matter how successful our virtual event will be this year, there is nothing that can replicate the networking and camaraderie that participants at the live event experience. This has always been the strength of NAMS, bringing our members and others together to hear the latest science and research, participate in discussions, and see what new products are available. Those informal discussions often lead to new research and projects and that’s the benefit of a live event. We are certain conferences will change, but face-to-face gatherings remain an extremely important part of our overall mission.
Robert Lash, MD
Interim Chief Executive Officer
When we cancelled ENDO 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, it was only the second time in our 104-year history that we did not hold our annual meeting. The other was during World War II. Although we could not meet in person, we knew that our members, as well as endocrinologists around the world, still wanted to learn about the latest advances in endocrine science, present their research and network with colleagues. They also needed up-to-date information on COVID-19 as it related to the care of their patients.
With the pandemic forcing the cancellation of medical meetings and conferences around the globe, our leadership made a bold commitment to offer complimentary registration for ENDO Online 2020. We believed that supporting and uniting our global endocrine community was the right message to send in the face of a pandemic.
The response to ENDO Online exceeded any of our expectations. Over 27,000 people from 139 countries signed up to join us. Of course, our move to the online world was not flawless, as our live opening ceremony struggled to serve the thousands of colleagues trying to log on. However, we rapidly found our footing and we were soon presenting live and on-demand sessions around the clock and around the world.
ENDO Online was in early June, the beginning of protests in response to the death of George Floyd. Our hometown of Washington, DC, was particularly affected, and we wanted to send our own message during yet another difficult time. To that end, our elected leaders led our worldwide community in 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence, recognizing lives lost and challenges remaining.
We are already hard at work on ENDO 2021. Once again, we will be virtual. But we will be there, showcasing the best of endocrine research and clinical care and making it possible for our members and new colleagues from around the world to learn from each other.