While a good number of annual medical congresses have been postponed or cancelled due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, others have moved online. This past week saw the first installment of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) 2020 Virtual Meeting. Although coverage of top content from this congress can be found on Univadis, the following reviews some of what we learned attending our first virtual congress.
Instead of traveling to the congress venue, with all that entails, I simply filled out the online registration form and waited for the congress to start. Sitting in my home office with my laptop, I spent several minutes trying to get past the login screen, which didn’t seem to want to accept my credentials. Once that spontaneously sorted itself out, I was faced with a live video of the AACR president, Elaine Mardis. Following her introductory words of welcome, the livestream segued seamlessly into the first session, with the presenter speaking over slides displayed in the livestream video window.
Being used to taking notes on my laptop at live congresses, the experience from here forward was not substantially different, at least during the congress sessions. Slides were clear, data was explained as is typical for a scientific or medical meeting, and presenters and session chairs discussed the data and addressed audience questions. These Q&A sessions were actually an improvement over live congresses. Questions could only be submitted via a chat window on the congress website, and were then read by a single coordinator, so they were short and to the point, leaving plenty of time for answers and discussion.
Furthermore, as all sessions were archived online, there was no need to decide which session to prioritize over others. I simply watched one session live and then caught up anything I might have missed via the archive. Attendees had the possibility to switch sessions at any moment by simply clicking a link, obviating the need to traverse a massive congress venue. There were even short poster presentations, including authors speaking for around 5 minutes over slides of their posters' main sections.
The only things missing were spontaneous interactions with other congress attendees and the full scope of results and data. To address this second point, AACR is planning a part II of this virtual meeting in the summer with a great deal of additional content. But I and others involved in Univadis’ coverage did miss the opportunity to discuss results with fellow congress attendees, interview experts for additional commentary, or peruse the exhibition hall for a “behind the scenes” view. Although plenty of congress-related activity happened on social networks (as is usual for any congress), the chance to share the congress atmosphere with others was lacking. Moving forward, the most successful congresses would do well to facilitate remote interactions – be it via chat rooms, videoconferencing or other means.
In sum, AACR deserves sincere congratulations for putting on such a successful replacement of their annual in-person congress. On the whole, virtual replacements should have no trouble succeeding in replicating congresses' usual role of disseminating the latest data and information in medical research. But the best could improve the virtual attendees’ ability to interact and participate through good planning and the latest technology. Based on this experience, we are looking forward to virtual ASCO, EHA, and many other medical congresses in the coming months.