Has COVID killed the live medical conference?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published March 17, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 pushed many live conferences to the web, and this  trend is likely to continue after the worst of the pandemic has subsided.

  • Advantages of virtual medical conferences include time saved and fully asynchronous learning opportunities. Disadvantages include split attention to lectures by remote viewers and lack of hands-on procedural guidance.

  • Getting the most out of virtual conferences requires an effort to block off time, avoid distractions, and network in different ways.

In addition to catalyzing changes to telemedicine, COVID-19 also forced another staple of medicine to go virtual: The medical conference. In hindsight, the virtual migration of at least some aspects of medical conferences is long overdue. In the past, clinicians have bemoaned barriers to in-person conferences, including busy work schedules, travel time, and family commitments.

The move to online conferences is still evolving. To date, there is no consensus on whether live conferences should go or stay, but various stakeholders are making their opinions known. 

Advantages and disadvantages

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, leadership from the Scoliosis Research Society (SRS) explained their pivot to virtual conferences with their annual International Meeting on Advanced Spinal Techniques (IMAST) and the SRS Annual Meeting. 

For example, attendees who may face financial or time constraints, such as those from developing countries, residents, and fellows, may be more inclined to attend virtual conferences. In addition, attendees who may have been disinclined to participate by approaching the microphone in a live session may be inclined to use the online discussion forums. 

This format also tends to appeal to attendees with language barriers, as they may feel more comfortable typing their questions instead of speaking them aloud.

Content from virtual meetings is also cataloged online for asynchronous learning, which could free up time for attendees by quickly searching for topics of interest. Although such opportunities for asynchronous learning existed before the pandemic, the technology and opportunities have come into their own with fully remote conferences.

The authors of the HBR article also point out potential disadvantages of virtual meetings, including:

- The challenges of holding a live virtual meeting that spans different time zones

- Surprise technical issues (eg, difficulties with the microphone or camera)

- Limited opportunities to interact with live speakers in real time

- Participants encountering nearby distractions while tuning in remotely.

The authors noted that certain mitigating measures can be applied to secure listener attention, such as requiring them to turn on their cameras, providing two-way interactive sessions, and engaging attendees in regular participation via direct questions. 

These measures, however, work best in small groups, and per the authors, “probably can’t fully address the loss of face-to-face contact that in-person meetings provide, connections that are critical in breeding new research collaborations and for early-career doctors in establishing the new personal and professional relationships that are so important, particularly for those in academic medicine.”

Related: How clinicians are facing pandemic childcare challenges

What the future holds

Authors of the HBR article suggest that the future of medical conferences will involve limited, high-stakes in-person meetings. Virtual meetings will attempt to replicate the live experience as much as possible, as has often been the case during the pandemic.

The authors recommended that the key to virtual conferences is to keep the sessions brief, at about 3 or 4 hours per day, with the conferences spread over several days—not weeks. Live sessions need to be timed to appeal to the largest available audience. Multiple concurrent Q&A sessions should be facilitated on sub-topics to support focused discussion and increased engagement.

The authors, who are surgical specialists, acknowledge that hands-on procedural training will mostly necessitate in-person courses after the pandemic ends. There is no gold-standard method for assessing surgical skill in a virtual sense, so new technologies are being investigated, including virtual reality, augmented reality, and 3D procedural simulations.

Zoom fatigue

Virtual meetings can be draining because of “Zoom fatigue,” according to a commentary posted on LinkedIn. Constant interference from competing tasks makes this phenomenon worse.

Hybrid conference organizers need to understand that live and virtual components proffer different experiences. Virtual conferences could appeal to asynchronous learning experiences, and live sessions could address synchronous learning experiences.

One approach may be to stretch out virtual lessons over several weeks and place them on an on-demand streaming platform to decrease fatigue. Resulting logistics could require complex planning from conference organizers and medical societies.

Related: How physicians can honor the 'radical' teachings of the late Dr. Paul Farmer

Making the most of virtual conferences

With a trend towards virtual conferences established, how do you make the most of such remote experiences?

A post published on Continuum, an online publication sponsored by the healthcare information technology company CareCloud, provides some valuable tips for physicians on how to make the most of a virtual medical conference, including:

  • Set up email reminders for the start of the virtual conference. With no need to travel, you may lose track of when it begins.

  • Block off time on your personal and work schedules to devote to the conference.

  • Consider taking detailed notes to reinforce your learning.

  • Limit outside distractions while attending the virtual event, whether at home or in the office.

  • Use the conference’s chat function, if available, to network and meet new people.

What this means for you

COVID-19 has changed the entire fabric of medicine. Conferences that were once online have possibly found a permanent home on the internet. There are advantages and disadvantages to this trend. Rest assured, however, that you can still make the most of your conference experience—whether you are sitting in a hotel lecture hall or in the creature comforts of your home office.


  1. How to Get the Most out of a Virtual Healthcare Conference. Continuum.

  2. Sethi RK, Nemani V, Shaffrey C, et al. Reimagining Medical Conferences for a Virtual Setting. Harvard Business Review. December 10, 2020.

  3. Starnes L. The medical conference is dead, long live the medical conference: REDUX. Your questions answered. Linkedin. July 21, 2020.

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