RSNA 2020: Attending a virtual medical conference

Every year on the weekend after after Thanksgiving, much to the disappointment of my family, I fly to Chicago to attend one of the largest medical conferences in the world: the RSNA (Radiological Society of North America) annual meeting.  The conference is huge, with tens of thousands of attendees, hundreds of educational talks and posters, and exhibitor rooms filled with booths and equipment. At any given moment, the eye is met with a sea of people in dark suits and name tags. Even those accustomed to large conferences are surprised at the magnitude of this meeting. The week for me is a frenzy of attending sessions, talking with vendors, sometimes working a booth, and catching up with friends and colleagues.

This year, of course, things were different. It was a virtual conference, with scheduled educational sessions that were mostly pre-recorded, followed by live Q&A with the speakers, during which they answered chat questions. Vendors had virtual booths into which you could book time or just “stop by” and chat. Usually, the entire week is focused entirely around RSNA, but this year most of the radiologists I know didn’t take time off for the virtual meeting, instead attending scattered sessions as time allowed within their normal schedules. From what I heard, the virtual vendor booths unsurprisingly received fewer visitors than with in-person meetings.

It’s hard to replace a live event with a virtual one, but the format allowed for some nice surprises. Rather than running to make a particular session or deciding between two simultaneous interesting sessions, I could watch them at my leisure, pausing take a note or a screenshot. Appreciating the poster presentations – some of which are great infographic-like explanations of complex concepts – previously consisted of standing in front of poster after poster, hoping to remember the important points, and eventually getting overwhelmed with information. Now I can read them when I want, saving images of the best ones for future reference. It made me wonder why we did it the old way for so long. The digital poster web page has more than 2400 posters – imagine trying to manage that in person.

On the other hand, parts of the meeting predictably suffered without the advantage of an entire industry under one roof. In past years I could get a sense of where radiology was going just by wandering the floor and stopping to talk to interesting exhibitors. When I’ve had a specific goal or question, I would walk from vendor to vendor, getting answers and making comparisons. This year I barely bothered to look at the virtual booths. It just didn’t feel like a priority, given the other things I could be doing. I didn’t realize how much not being there in person would change my level of engagement.

What I missed most was the element of serendipity that the RSNA meeting has always provided – chance conversations with an exhibitor, running into old friends as we cross the bridge between buildings, discovering a new idea from an unexpected source – none of that happens at a virtual conference. The social and community feeling was sorely lacking. I’m not sure you can capture that virtually.

When the effects of COVID-19 have receded, some industries will return to business as usual; professional sports, for example will almost certainly go right back to filling stadiums and overcharging for hot dogs. But for others, it is an opportunity for reinvention. It’s chance to ask if the old way was the best way, or just the way it’s always been done. The consumers in these industries, having experienced something different, will be asking themselves if they now want something else. Especially in areas like education, healthcare, and entertainment, people are realizing that the pandemic versions have some advantages.

In terms of the RSNA meeting, do I really want to return to the previous educational experience? If RSNA doesn’t offer on-demand streaming of educational content, maybe some other organization will. And if the educational component is virtual, is there enough left of the meeting to warrant spending a week away from home? What about education in general? Does it makes sense to go back to teachers lecturing students in-person all day long? What are the pros and cons of that? Can we improve access to the best educational experience if we expand our concept of what school looks like?

The entertainment industry is clearly considering different business models, with some already announcing that 2021 movies will be released on streaming platforms. Movie theater owners, in turn, will have to reconsider their value proposition and business model. The US healthcare industry may be protected from some of this desire for change, given how many consumers have little choice in their healthcare provider, but my prediction is that even there, the genie is out of the bottle.

Very few of us like the way that 2020 has turned out. But despite all the negatives, we can learn lessons from the experience. Maybe instead of just resetting, we can reconsider and reinvent.

I am definitely looking forward to getting back to a more normal way of life, but I will also be thinking about how much of my old life I want to return to. Like many, I have stripped my life down closer to the essentials and I realize that much of the way I have been spending my time, money, and energy were unnecessary, frivolous, or even harmful. The whole world has had an existential crisis and as we come out the other side, we should realize that we have a rare opportunity to remake ourselves – will we take it?

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