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AAO-HNSF 2022: Forward Together and Back Together

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The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation (AAO-HNSF) 2022 Annual Meeting and OTO Experience took place in Philadelphia this week with the theme of "Forward Together." Despite being hemi-antonymous, the theme of the meeting could have easily been "Back Together" because of the robust attendance and collegial atmosphere of the meeting. By all measures the in-person event was a success and a welcomed return to pre-pandemic attendance and opportunities. The excitement of being back together was palpable. 

In 2020, the AAO-HNSF Annual Meeting and OTO Experience, like most conferences, was converted to a virtual format. Due to the size of the program, the meeting was spread over several weeks in webinar format. Then, in 2021, the meeting was held in Los Angeles. Other major meetings, including the American Head and Neck Society 10th International Conference on Head and Neck Cancer were converted to virtual last summer. The AAO-HNSF pushed forward with a live meeting last year with appropriate COVID-19 safeguards in place. Proof of vaccination was required, and masks were worn throughout the meeting halls. While successful from an operations standpoint, the attendance was paltry compared to the prior annual meetings. Vaccine booster shots had only just become available, and hesitancy due to the fluctuating incidence of COVID-19 and continued restrictions on travel at many academic institutions contributed to the low attendance.

This year in Philadelphia was anything but paltry. With over 6,000 attendees, the meeting eclipsed pre-pandemic levels, and COVID-19 did not hang over the conference like it did last year. There were no vaccination checks, masks requirements, or gathering restrictions. In fact, COVID-19 was barely mentioned, in the hallways or on the podium, while the topic dominated discussions and presentations at last year’s event. That is not to say that the virus or precautions were disregarded. Attendees who opted to wear masks were warmly welcomed, as were elbow bumps over handshakes.

Being back in person was a refreshing reminder of the benefits of large academic gatherings. While virtual substitutes did an adequate job of delivering scientific content, podium presentations barely scratch the surface of the value of academic meetings. Whether it is education or networking, the majority of each takes place in the hallways of the convention center and at dinners and outings that are not part of the official agenda. In my field of head and neck cancer, there have been advances in the past few years that were overripe for discussion in the scientific meeting setting. The utilization of liquid biopsy for cancer surveillance and the role of neoadjuvant immunotherapy are just two examples of topics that many were eager to discuss, both on and off the microphone. One can schedule an interview to network on Zoom, but one can’t recreate bumping into a colleague or a spontaneous introduction to a potential new collaborator in the virtual setting. Many of my trainees were able to network for potential fellowship and employment opportunities in ways that had not been possible since the pandemic hit.

I am especially proud of Philadelphia’s contribution to the success of the meeting. The extraordinary attendance was likely enhanced by Philadelphia’s outstanding convention center, world-class restaurants, and geographic location within a two-hour flight of 60% of the U.S. population. Additionally, September is the most beautiful weather month in the city. As chair of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Thomas Jefferson University/Jefferson Health, I enjoyed welcoming colleagues from around the world as a host institution for the meeting. It was outstanding to have over 75 alumni of our training programs return home and rewarding to see our program’s faculty and residents deliver over 40 presentations throughout the meeting. Coordination of the AAO-HNSF 2022 Annual Meeting and OTO Experience with the 2022 International Surgical Sleep Society Meeting, the American Rhinological Society 68th Annual Meeting, the Society of Otorhinolaryngology Head-Neck Nurses 46th Annual Congress and Educational Symposium, and the Fifth Annual Jefferson Sialendoscopy Course enhanced the experience for the meeting attendees.

The AAO-HNSF Annual Meeting traditionally takes place in September or early October. This year the meeting overlapped with 9/11. In 2001, the year of the terrorist attacks, the meeting also overlapped with 9/11, and thousands of attendees from across the country and the globe were stranded in Denver after their flights were grounded. In subsequent years, the 9/11 attacks were frequently referenced in the context of the meeting. With each year that passes, the dark cloud of the attacks seems to hang less heavy. This year, the victims and heroes of the day were honored in the AAO-HNSF President Dr. Ken Yanagisawa’s address which took place on Sunday, the 21st anniversary of 9/11. Outside of that memorial, there was little discussion of the attacks, just as there was less mainstream media coverage of 9/11 compared to years past. The 9/11 attacks and the COVID-19 pandemic were tragic events with thousands of first and second victims, and both left us wondering if we would ever return to “normal” again. This year’s AAO-HNSF Annual Meeting and OTO Experience demonstrated that we could recover from terrible events while continuing to honor those involved.

At Jefferson, we were fortunate to have the AAO-HNSF’s President-Elect Dr. Kathleen Yaremchuk deliver a grand rounds to our department on the final day of the AAO-HNSF 2022 Annual Meeting and OTO Experience as her last act prior to becoming the President of the Academy. She gave an exceptional talk entitled "That Moment — Gender Equity in Otolaryngology,” which promoted and predicted the further advancement of women in Otolaryngology and left the audience excited for our specialty’s future. When the pandemic hit, we all wondered if we would ever get back to large in-person academic meetings as we deliberated the concept of new normal. The AAO-HNSF 2022 Annual Meeting and OTO Experience showed that the new normal could feel near normal, and the prediction of gender equity in our specialty makes me excited for our next normal.

David M. Cognetti, MD is the Herbert Kean, MD Professor and Chair of the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College/Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA.

Image by DrAfter123 / GettyImages

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