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SAGES 2021: How to Conference in the Age of COVID

Op-Med is a collection of original articles contributed by Doximity members.

I attended my favorite session at SAGES this year in pajamas. For a few I was drinking a beer, chasing my 10 month old son around the room, and shouting at the squirrels I thought I could see eating up our garden. No, I haven't completely gone off the deep end and violated all conference and social norms in person -- though the current interminable state of COVID would not make the above brand of nervous breakdown wholly implausible. I attended SAGES virtually this year, at the conference registration bargain price of $195. 

As a relative introvert, I have found that virtual conferences in the past year can provide numerous benefits beyond just my own personal satisfaction of avoiding obligatory networking sessions. The first is the efficiency of the whole ordeal. Instead of being challenged to navigate the Tetris scheduling game of attending in-person lectures, I can safely peruse the entire library of talks at my own leisure in pajamas, with an AirPod in ear, or screaming at the squirrels. This year at SAGES I was able to attend every single session I wanted to, thanks to the expansive on-demand video library.

The second less apparent but even more striking benefit is in the educational value of virtual conferences. At SAGES this year my team grabbed food and sat down together, socially distanced in the comfort of our scrubs in the resident lounge. Here, we were able to critically discuss the finer points of surgery in 2021, inspired by experts in their field, and all of us learning along the way. We could pull up talks, pause it on a compelling slide, and take 5 minutes to discuss the presenter's points and make our own counterpoints in "real" time. The intern got the rare opportunity to debate the fellow in a low stress, open environment that is  more conducive to practical learning. This is a dramatically different space from the sometimes stuffy in-person affair of academic conferencing, where practicing surgeons dominate the microphone to ask "questions." Meanwhile -- and though they might've had more compelling questions to ask -- residents and students cower somewhere between the back row and the back wall of the lecture hall. The egalitarian nature of virtual conferencing opens up the educational playing field so everyone can get a chance to "play."  A virtual setting amongst peers and mentors creates a place where learners at all levels can venture opinions and insights, whereas in the lecture hall they might otherwise never have had the chance or courage to do so. Even medical students can talk about things with virtual access.

Finally, the obvious stressors and uncertainty of the fourth wave of the pandemic make the virtual option critical for some who might be unwilling or unable to take the medical risk for in-person conferences. For some, attending these conferences in person would be a level of exposure that is not psychologically or medically tenable for them and their families. The virtual option gives them the opportunity to continue to experience the conference without risking their safety or those of their loved ones. 

I hope we will see an end to the pandemic soon and with it, the imperative for virtual conferences. But, I also hope the future in-person option will retain the virtual access that makes this type of conference what it was always meant to be - an accessible, safe, expansive, and educational forum for anyone who wants it. And with that level of efficiency, I may actually be able to find time to keep the squirrels out of my garden.

Dr. Parmar is employed by UAB Hospital, has received a grant from Americas Hernia Society, and has received the SAGES Career Development Award.

Image by GoodStudio / Shutterstock

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