Conference Coverage

A bumpy virtual #ASCO20; Returning to Chicago in 2021?

Called ‘incredibly boring,’ Praised as ‘special’



CYBERSPACE – Hope Rugo, MD, was one of the would-be attendees of the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting who could not access the online event on its first day, Friday, May 29.

“Such a shame – virtual ASCO is nonexistent,” tweeted Rugo, who is from the University of California, San Francisco.

The breast cancer specialist tried for more than hour before finally gaining entry in the late morning.

Not everyone was as successful.

That same day, Arjun Balar, MD, of NYU Langone Health in New York announced on Twitter that he’d quit for the day. “I give up @ASCO. Time for a cocktail.

Don Dizon, MD, of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, tried repeatedly to join the meeting as a live broadcast, using his desktop and laptop computers as well as an iPad. Nothing worked. Limited to seeing data and discussions “after the fact,” Dizon looked to next year, tweeting hopefully: “... fingers crossed for an inperson #ASCO21.”

ASCO did not respond to a request for further information about the technical difficulties of the meeting’s first day.

This year’s meeting, which involved 40,000-plus attendees, was shortened to 3 days and limited to scientific presentations because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Education sessions will be held online August 8-10.

Despite those technical glitches, dozens of virtual meeting attendees praised the online effort, which was assembled in just a few months, and called out virtues such as the quick availability of video transcripts as well as the obvious benefits of low cost, zero travel, and overall convenience. But one sentiment was nearly universal: there’s nothing like the real thing.

At the same time, a Medscape Oncology online meeting poll indicated that nearly half (48%) of the 335 respondents said “no,” they do not envision themselves in person at the real thing in Chicago in 2021. About one fifth (21%) said, “yes, if there is a vaccine.” Roughly 15% said “yes,” and another 15% said “not sure right now.”

What did oncologists miss most with virtual ASCO?

Many said face-to-face (F2F) interactions. Collaboration, networking, and catching up with old friends were some of the stock F2F moments cited as losses.

Others described more idiosyncratic disappointments, including Riyaz Shah, MD, of the Kent Oncology Centre in the UK, who dismissed a future with exclusively virtual meetings.

He tweeted: “Not sustainable. We need to meet F2F. Oncology is an odd one. Exposed to human distress daily (if not hourly). [Very] few people understand what we do, fewer would do it. There aren’t many people we can talk to. I love chewing the cud with my colleagues who are close friends.”

The virtual meeting inspired more social media engagement, but fewer oncologists participated, according to data from social media analytics firm Symplur. This year, 1K users identified as oncologists generated 17.75K tweets. In 2019, 1.3K oncologists put out 15.2K tweets.

Virtual meeting ‘like homework’

George Sledge, MD, of Stanford University, California, asked his 1700 Twitter followers to discuss the virtual ASCO experience, including the spotty functionality of presenter videos (a con) and eating dinner between talks (a pro).

One of his criticisms struck a nerve – that the online meeting was “like homework.”

“ ‘Feels like homework’ is the best expression I [have] read so far!” tweeted Gustavo Gössling, MD, from the Kaplan Oncology Institute in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Yes, it feels “like studying alone,” agreed Stanford’s Lidia Schapira, MD, in a tweet.

“It’s incredibly boring – let’s bring back F2F next year,” tweeted Ioannis Gounaris, MD, Merck Group, Cambridge, UK, in response to Sledge’s request.

Sledge joined many others in saying that, ultimately, the future should include – and will demand – both virtual and in-person meetings.

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