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ASA Shows Us the Future of Conferences in a Not-Quite-Post-COVID-19 World

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The American Society of Anesthesiologists made the difficult and controversial decision to have an in-person meeting this year in October 2021. They faced quite a bit of backlash, particularly as the delta variant spread inexorably through the country. Attendees and speakers alike asked them to cancel in-person events and go entirely virtual. Cancelling the in-person meeting would have not only affected the ASA but many of the subspecialty organizations that have their annual meetings on the day prior to the start of the ASA. The ASA decided to go ahead with a hybrid meeting that was in person, but included many virtual livestreamed lectures and presentations that will be archived for registrants. Many attendees and some speakers, moderators, and other conference participants decided to stay home, leaving those of us who chose to attend wondering who would be there and if anyone would show up to our lectures and workshops. Their decision allowed the Society for Pediatric Anesthesia (SPA) to also have a successful meeting on Friday, Oct. 8. The Clear App was used to help ensure attendees were vaccinated or had negative COVID-19 tests and included a daily health check. Social distancing was encouraged, but hugs were plentiful.

Both meetings were wonderful and San Diego was at its glorious best. The weather was perfect; some clouds, some rain, but mostly crisp, beautiful sunshine. The SPA meeting was a one-day meeting and included international speakers who livestreamed their lectures and in-person presentations. The topics hit the right note in a not-quite post pandemic world. They were on point and relevant to some of our still recovering psyches. The meeting started with a look back at historical pandemics, continued with many excellent presentations on the spread of scientific information, the influence of sleep on pain and post-surgical recovery, and a pro/Con debate on the power of social media in medicine.

The ASA meeting started on Saturday, Oct. 9. There were more than 7,000 in-person participants and more than 2,000 virtual ones. The hybrid model was easy to navigate and allowed a great deal of flexibility for participants. It was joy to see old colleagues, make new friends, and meet in person the people we had gotten to know well over Zoom, Webex, Twitter, and other virtual environments. Queries of, “Have we actually met in real life or do I know you from…?” were heard.

I loved having a choice and being able to watch some lectures livestreamed, lounging in my hotel room, while touching up my own presentations and going to others in person. This was my first year involved in the ASA and my state component society’s (California Society of Anesthesiologist) governance as an Alternate Delegate. Meetings for the House of Delegates and the various caucuses were held in one of the headquarter hotels, while the conference offerings were in the San Diego Convention Center. The hybrid model was ideal for allowing optimization of education and attendance at the other events. In the past, so much time would be spent running between rooms and locations that were often geographically distant that it was impossible to attend desired activities.

The two special presentations lectures that I was able to attend were superb. The Emery Rovenstine Lecture was a tribute to Dr. Ted Eger and his many contributions to anesthesiology and medicine. Dr. Eger is considered the father of volatile anesthetics, and the tales of his trials and tribulations, while developing these agents was fascinating and informative. Dr. Steven Shafer channeled Dr. Eger in his talk and was brilliant, entertaining, and engaging. He shared anecdotes and stories from Dr. Eger’s just released autobiography (edited by Dr. Shafer) and highlighted some of his greatest achievements. 

The Severinghaus Lecture this year was given by Dr. James Eisenach and entitled “Gadgeteering for Pain Relief.” Dr. Severinghaus is another legend in medicine and is credited with discovering the technology that allows for blood gas analyses, as well as the first blood gas machine. A discovery that is the cornerstone of modern medicine. He is called by some “the Leonardo da Vinci of Anesthesiology.” He was a lifelong inventor, tinkerer, and “gadgeteer” who sadly passed away a few months ago. Dr. Eisenach shared his story of research and discovery in pain medicine, while including snippets of interviews with Dr. Severinghaus. Legends sharing the stories of other legends! A truly remarkable experience. 

The Keynote Lecture this year on Saturday Oct 9th was given by Doris Kearns-Goodwin on “Leadership in Turbulent Times. I wasn’t able to attend in person, but am truly looking forward to listening soon.

I believe this will be the future of large conferences and maybe small ones, too. We have all gotten used to convenience of education “on demand” and the ability to provide virtual content in a way that benefits the organization will be key. In-person meetings will not be going away; the richness and depth of discussion and questions cannot be replicated on-line; the chance meetings and organic connections are invaluable. 

I feel reenergized, and I can’t wait until the next SPA and ASA Conference.

Dr. Agarwal is a pediatric anesthesiologist, pediatric pain specialist, and mother of three boys. She is currently the president of the Society for Pediatric Pain Medicine and former Chair of the AAP Section on Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine. Dr. Agarwal reports no conflicts of interest.

Image by Viktoria Kurpas / Shutterstock

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