American College Of Surgeons - Inspiring Quality: Highest Standards, Better Outcomes

From the Directors Desk: Imagining a New Normal

Heidi Nelson, MD, FACSHeidi Nelson, MD, FACS
Medical Director, ACS Cancer Programs

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) held a virtual meeting in April and 28,000 people attended. Two months ago, most of us would not have imagined this possible. But why not? Many of us probably think of meetings as more than just new knowledge acquisition. We think of meetings as time for meals with friends and side conversations with colleagues and as fresh venues away from home. For all these reasons, in-person meetings create an excitement that nudges us toward new thoughts and action. And yet, the attendance at AACR speaks to the strong need within us to keep gathering despite social distancing constraints. Maybe, in fact, we need it more now, just to circumvent isolation. The value of national dialogue and academic exchange, even during this pandemic, is clear and evident. 

Cancer researchers sent an unambiguous signal, and although it challenges our assumptions about what may be preferred, it is noteworthy. In truth, it fits well with other lessons learned, such as that virtual tumor boards are better attended than in-person boards. It seems that providers who were geographically disadvantaged from attending in-person tumor boards are now on the same virtual playing field with colleagues who used to be in the room. In the same way, weekly Cancer Programs webinars that disseminated information on COVID-19 and cancer, despite short notice, were well attended with up to 1,000 registrants each. 

At this time, we do not know if the AACR virtual meeting was as satisfying as in-person meetings, but we do know that it fulfilled some kind of needs. With attention to enhancements it may offer unanticipated advantages, such as increasing access to new knowledge. When you think about it, virtual technologies can accommodate very large audiences, and chat boxes provide an opportunity for many more questions to be asked and answered than can typically be managed in brief Q&A sessions. Furthermore, virtual meetings eliminate travel and cost barriers, which may further democratize and speed the dissemination of new knowledge. Whatever the final outcome, for now, we are beginning down a path of virtual meetings, a path we did not see two months ago. It begs the question of what else have we not imagined possible?