By Frederick L. Greene, MD

Over the past several months, a multitude of medical organizations have either canceled or postponed their 2020 iterations. For some of these professional societies, planning for 2021 is ongoing, whereas for others, attempts to have virtual opportunities for professional education have occurred.

It is apparent that modern teleconferencing technology may indeed allow for transmission of lectures, slide presentations, question-and-answer sessions, and so forth. I have tried my best to partake of these offerings over the last few months when made available by organizations to which I belong. I must admit that sitting in front of my computer, unshaven and not having to don a coat and tie, has really resonated! I will also admit that the subject matter presented has held less appeal for me than the opportunity to experience fully how technology might replace actually being there. From this limited experience, as a longstanding attendee at medical meetings, I have come away disappointed in every case.


For me, there is nothing that replaces the in-person ambiance in witnessing the presentation from a seasoned presenter or in experiencing the anguish along with a young resident presenting his or her first plenary session paper. No virtual format can replace witnessing, in real time, the give-and-take between a questioner and presenter following a provocative presentation. A virtual rendering can never replace the opportunity to take a young surgical mentee up to the dais to congratulate a well-known surgeon after he or she has given a stirring named lecture. No matter what iteration of a webinar or video format is used, there is no replacement for the excitement and incalculable benefits of participating in a living, nonvirtual educational program. That excitement has stayed with me since my first American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress attended as a PGY3 in 1972!


Over many years, the fate of large professional society assemblies has been debated even before the ravages of COVID-19. Many have opined that the increasing cost and difficulty of travel, the enhanced opportunities for virtual learning, the pressures of greater RVU [relative value unit] generation, the additional barriers between technical exhibitors and clinicians, and changing generational attitudes toward traditional organizational meetings would collectively lead to the disappearance of established in-person annual societal meetings. All organizations are indeed facing these varying pressures.


I guess the ultimate reason for keeping our in-person opportunities for learning intact is that humans need human interaction. No matter the technological advances that are realized from teleconferencing and innovations that augment our virtual world, we all benefit from in-person networking with our colleagues. The opportunities to engage in a chance conversation during a shuttle bus ride from the hotel to the meeting venue; the benefit of participating in a dialogue with a technical representative to discuss a new innovation; or the excitement of just sitting in a hall with several hundred other surgical colleagues who are enjoying the moment with you—these are the experiences that keep bringing us back.

Dr. Greene is a surgeon in Charlotte, N.C.