A female academic physician’s relationship with the remote meeting during COVID-19

The academic medical community has drastically changed how we educate and share our ideas since the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Spring of 2020.  The remote meeting, often conducted via Zoom or a similar web-based platform, has gone from a rare occurrence to the default manner in which we conduct business.  As a full-time academic cardiologist with three children under six years old, to say evening meetings and conferences are difficult to commit to would be an understatement.  Before the COVID-19 pandemic, my daily goal was to get out of work in time to spend some quality time with my children and be available for the bedtime routine.  Staying for evening meetings was a disruption to my home life and the domestic tasks that awaited me at the end of the day.

However, academic medicine is flush with educational and administrative conferences during that narrow window between the end of the workday and bedtime.  Some of these competing events include fellow’s journal club, medical student interest groups, and local chapter professional society meetings, to name a few.  At least twice a month, there are also morning conferences scheduled before the start of clinic or inpatient rounds.  These conferences’ timing is particularly challenging, requiring a shift of the entire morning routine for small children who do not enjoy a routine disruption of any kind.

Enter COVID-19 and academic medicine’s embrace of the remote meeting.  Suddenly, it felt like the opportunities for involvement were endless, while still being an active participant in my family’s day to day life.  We are now approximately 8 months into the pandemic that has changed our lives in innumerable ways.  My relationship with the remote meeting to date has changed, as has my perspective on how it affects the careers and well-being of physician parents.

Had I written this in the first couple of months of the pandemic, I would’ve said: “This is a game-changer for academic physician parents”.  For example, I had technically been on a committee for our local cardiology society chapter for a year.  However, the meetings were over an hour away and in the middle of the workweek.  With the pandemic, however, this meeting became virtual.  I instantly became an active member.  I accepted a nomination to the council for the chapter, knowing those meetings would be virtual.  These opportunities were not accessible to me before the widespread adoption of remote meetings.

My initial excitement faded relatively quickly, however.  I routinely over-booked my virtual calendar or underestimated the time commitment of a given event.  I realized that despite the remote meeting, a human being still cannot be in two places at once, certainly not in a fully present way.  My absence when the perceived barriers to attendance had been removed resulted in guilt.  This feeling permeated both at home and work in novel ways.  Children are intuitive, and they acutely sense when attention is diverted to a remote meeting.  After coming home from a long day, the announcement “I just need to log on for a quick meeting” is met with disappointed cries.  Predictably, most meetings are punctuated by high-pitched yells in the background or little faces popping up behind me on screen.  At work, I worry that not participating is evidence of a lack of commitment to my academic position.  This offense’s guilt is more palpable than not attending meetings in-person since the achievement bar of opening a laptop is arguably low.

The remote meeting is just one example of how the COVID-19 pandemic introduced new challenges to our professional and domestic lives.  As I reflect on the evolution of my relationship with the remote meeting, I also reflect on where we are with the inciting enemy that brought us here.  At the time of this writing, we are facing the ‘second wave’ of the pandemic.  Three vaccines have been shown to be effective, and we await emergency use approval by the Federal Drug Administration.  We see the light at the end of the tunnel and realize our lives will return to normal at some point.  But we’re not there yet.  At least 500 Americans have already died from the COVID-19 virus today.

We are still in survival mode.  I invite us all to have grace for ourselves and our productivity. May we refrain from viewing the remote meeting as a new vector for work-life balance angst or self-deprecation.  On the contrary, I suggest we continue to embrace this new way to learn and grow as a community. The remote meeting may augment parents’ ability, particularly mothers, to have an adequate academic medicine opportunity.  If our institutions agree to continue to utilize remote meetings after they are no longer necessary, females in academic medicine may be afforded more opportunities to be involved in committee or leadership roles.  When we emerge on the other side of this pandemic, I urge us to remember these lessons learned as highlighted by the remote meeting, and continue to utilize this communication method for its benefits in the post-pandemic life of academic medical institutions.

Sara R. Tabtabai is a cardiologist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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