If my math is correct, this was my 33rd American Academy of Ophthalmology meeting. Each annual meeting brings more perspective to this incredible medical specialty many of us call home.
On the plus side, innovation is alive and well. I heard some amazing presentations on technology developments that offer breakthroughs in drug delivery as well as disease reversal (no longer just “halting progression”). There’s a lot more talk about what it means to be digital, which is good, because from the consumer’s perspective, health care is way behind the rest of the world when it comes to making medical encounters as convenient and practical as transportation (Lyft), food delivery (DoorDash) and getting a room last minute at a good deal (HotelTonight).
Private equity remains perhaps the hottest topic; AAO CEO David Parke, MD, summed it up by declaring that “private equity is the major disruptive force in ophthalmology today.” I think he’s right, although it is far from clear as to what this will mean in terms of patient care or physician compensation. One of my banking contacts who is very active in representing physician practices said the market has already shifted from seller to buyer. Deals are getting done, but the frenzy we’ve seen is subsiding as the professional buyers are much smarter, meaning that deals are taking longer to complete. He’s also seeing a decline in the numbers of offers made for a given practice (ie, fewer bidding wars). This trend is similar to what has taken place in other specialties and other industries where PE consolidation has taken hold.
Another disturbing trend is how vacant the exhibition hall seems. I’ve been watching this consistently the past 5 to 6 years, and it is obvious that not much is taking place on Monday or Tuesday. This is really bad for the companies that pay a king’s ransom to be at AAO (booth costs to build, store, transport as well as exhibit) and have their sales and marketing teams on hand to meet with doctors. While subspecialty days and satellite events continue to be strongly attended, this does little to help boost activity in the main hall during the meeting. Physicians tell me they feel pressure to get back to the office and are staying fewer days or not coming at all. As the entrenched societies with large memberships, it will be very interesting to see how AAO and the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery evolve and adapt. I would have expected to see some radical change by now, but it’s not there yet. I did appreciate that the bags given at registration were eliminated, as were the plastic badge holders. I also appreciate that for many attendees it is the reunion-like atmosphere and hallway conversations that bring them back each year.
The upcoming Museum of the Eye, scheduled to open in 2020, was featured prominently, and I like the fact that there will be a permanent home to exhibit the history of the best medical specialty. Its location in Fisherman’s Wharf, adjacent to the AAO’s headquarters, is an ideal location that will attract a lot of tourists. My hope is that the annual meeting will employ a forward-looking approach to ensure that the best days of the meeting and the specialty are ahead of us and not just a look in the rearview mirror.
Disclosure: As president of SM2 Strategic, Mahdavi can be reached via his firm’s website www.sm2strategic.com or office 925-425-9900.