As with all of my virtual meetings regardless of vendor (e.g., Zoom, WebEx, or Teams) the main challenges for me as both a presenter and an attendee were the small things. I missed the little things about the AAO annual meeting that make it a memorable experience from year to year. Human beings are hard wired for touch (handshakes and hugs). We require face-to-face contact for reading body language and understanding intent for feedback (e.g., smiles, laughs, nods, and applause). The sheer volume of information at the in-person AAO Annual Meeting is a daunting task normally, but the fun is in the exploration and in chance encounters with friends in transit. I missed seeing my friends and colleagues from around the world in one-on-one venues, I missed seeing their faces and hearing their voices, and I missed the chaotic purpose driven run/walks to my next appointment. My wife, Hilary Beaver, MD (also an AAO ophthalmologist), however, did not miss the walking or the distances (especially in Las Vegas).
Like all virtual formats, video conferencing is tiring and we have all experienced “Zoom fatigue.” There is also always the temptation of reduced participation not only from introverted attendees but also from extroverted but hidden multitasking ones as well. I know that for me “turning off the video” is always a risk, no matter the topic. On the other hand, the ability to stop and start at will; browse and break when tired; and not have to worry about rushing to the next event was refreshing and reassuring.
Although technical glitches are always a looming specter, thankfully in the AAO sessions that I attended, these seemed to be few and far between, and mostly minor.
Of course, one major advantage of the virtual format is the markedly reduced cost. This AAO meeting we had no airfare, no travel time, and no hotel or meal costs. I do not miss the flying or the lost half day of work, or the hassle of travel, but I do miss the chance to stay in a fancy hotel and enjoy communal meals at restaurants that I don’t usually have a chance to sample. Though I did not miss the 6 p.m. hotel cab lines.
A lot of business and networking happens outside of the AAO meeting hall, and missing the chance to reconnect with old friends, past medical students, residents, and fellows, and to mix and mingle at our four academic alumni meetings (Cullen (Baylor), Iowa, Wilmer (Johns Hopkins), and UTMB) was particularly painful this year, a year when we all need a hug. On the other hand, I didn’t have to cancel any clinics and I did not feel the stress, pressure, and rush of the typical AAO Annual meeting craziness.
In the end, I think that the virtual 2020 AAO Annual Meeting was a great success especially considering the technical, logistical, and other challenges created by COVID-19.
We are all learning to live in our “new normal” in this COVID-19 world. This 2020 AAO annual meeting was certainly strange and novel, but it was also a time to reflect and to consider how many of these meeting innovations and necessary epidemiologic responses will persist. I suspect that we will need to embrace some of these changes as our “new abnormal” even after COVID-19 fades in our collective memory.
Click here to read a young ophthalmologist's take on this year's AAO meeting.