An elegy for giant medical conventions

The annual meeting of my profession’s national society last fall may have been the last old-school, convention-size, professional meeting I will ever attend. I could be wrong, but it may mark the end of an era. Disruptive change to the convention business model was inevitable, though hastened by COVID-19. This year, the leadership of many medical associations announced that their upcoming annual meetings would be virtual – if not canceled completely – for the first time, but perhaps not the last. Does this news herald disaster or opportunity?

When I was a resident attending my first national meeting, the huge convention center struck me as the mother lode of knowledge, with lectures and workshops that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Today, I wonder why I would travel across the country to attend a refresher course lecture in a freezing-cold meeting room, when I can watch similar content on YouTube or VuMedi for free, in comfort?

Professional associations could take this moment to move decisively into the video/podcast market. Speakers could record their own lectures, pro-con debates, and panel discussions, and medical societies could post all the content on proprietary video and podcast channels for members to access year-round. Think of the money we could save on travel and the cost of renting convention centers. Giant conventions at the ASA or AMA level are limited to only a few cities, most of which wouldn’t be my choice to visit.

The future of exhibit halls?

Corporate interest in buying exhibit space at medical meetings was fading fast, even before COVID-19. Why pay to send people and equipment to exhibit halls when mergers and acquisitions have centralized all the purchasing power? As recently as ten years ago, many anesthesiologists were able to influence which laryngoscopes or epidural kits their departments would order. Today, people who negotiate purchasing contracts typically work in the central offices of health systems, not in operating rooms. Today, most of us can do little more than complain about our inadequate stock of video laryngoscopes or the maddening electronic health record we’re compelled to use.

Corporate executives aren’t stupid. They know that meeting organizers now have to beg or bribe attendees to visit exhibitor booths. Why spend time at a booth when there is little chance that you can persuade anyone to order the product – especially if it costs more than what you currently use? As exhibitor revenue drops, it becomes harder for a convention to make money or even recover its costs.

What about virtual governance meetings?

Can nonprofit association governance be carried on in electronic meeting rooms? Can Zoom or Microsoft Teams work just as well for the debates of a board of directors, or the election of officers by a House of Delegates?

My answer to those questions is a resounding “no.” This is one area where in-person meetings are worth the time and money.

As an example, look at the California Society of Anesthesiologists (CSA). In June, we held our main House of Delegates meeting via Zoom due to COVID-19. We accomplished our tasks,  discussed resolutions, and recorded our votes with no problem other than Zoom fatigue. But I realized afterward that the biggest advantage we had in working through every issue was the fact that many of us weren’t strangers. We had met in person so often before. The hallways and hotel lobbies of past CSA meetings were where we discussed ideas, worked out compromises, and cemented the relationships that are at the heart of politics. Those relationships worked in our favor again.

All politics are local and personal. None of the candidates in our two contested elections had the chance to meet personally with delegates, creating a problem for new delegates who might not know them. Reading a candidate’s personal statement and listening to a well-rehearsed speech have about the same relationship to reality as my Facebook posts have to my day-to-day life.

How do you really get to know a candidate, whether at the state or national level?  By means of personal interaction. When you’re new to a group, which person looks right through you when you’re unknown, then suddenly becomes your new best friend once you gain some standing? That’s not the person who should get your vote. We remember, and vote for, the people of character who earn our friendship and trust. It’s tough to judge character via Zoom.

Which way to the future?

The mission of professional associations is not to host conventions but to serve members. Most members can’t easily leave work to attend a five-day meeting, especially if it requires cross-country travel. Looking into my crystal ball, I can envision different, leaner medical meetings.

As an example, a smaller annual meeting of a House of Delegates – in person – could focus on governance, election of officers, finances, and political issues. National leaders, state society leaders, and future leaders could get to know each other, and build connections with key people in state and federal government.

Hands-on technical workshops could move to the state level, supporting the growth and success of state component societies. Their development could be supported by the national parent organization on practical topics and new technologies of interest to members, and workshops could be held at state or regional meetings. If meetings were held on weekends and involved less travel, more members would be able to take advantage of them. Membership thrives when an event attracts local interest, and district leaders can meet and recruit members in person.

Physicians in general and independent practices, in particular, are in trouble. Primary care practices have had few outpatient visits, and elective surgical procedures were on hold for weeks this spring. Physicians want strong advocacy and a compelling message to the public about their irreplaceable role in healthcare. If they’re going to pay to join state or national medical societies, they want convenient, on-line education. They don’t want their dues to fund cumbersome committees that meet once a year, and gala receptions that most will never attend.

Except for the nostalgia, how many of us will miss navigating those giant convention halls? Maybe the time has come to make the break.

Karen S. Sibert is an anesthesiologist who blogs at A Penned Point.  

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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