Pandemics, defined as a disease prevalent over a whole country or the world, have substantial short- and long-term consequences that are dependent on a variety of factors. Critical factors determining overall consequences include the severity of the disease, duration and geographic extent of the pandemic, the ability to limit or at least control the disease, and resultant impact on other key aspects of society, such as the economy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has produced unprecedented world-wide spread with increasing fatalities and a range of severe medical complications for survivors. As I write this editorial (in mid-April, 2020) on the impact of COVID-19 on major professional meetings, such as the RSNA Annual Meeting in Chicago and other large conferences planned for fall and winter of 2020, it is difficult to predict the state of individual and public health and the world economy later this year. However, safety recommendations for public and personal health, as well as the extent of economic recovery will clearly be major determinants of consequences for major professional meetings.
Professional societies and organizations sponsor meetings to accomplish and promote many goals, primarily focusing on Education and Research. Other important goals include policy making, career and personal skill development, marketing by vendors of equipment and new technologies, as well as interacting with colleagues at the meeting itself and associated social events. Professional meetings serve as focal points for professional societies, not only as sources of revenue, but also for recruitment of new members. In addition, national meetings act as major drivers of regional economies for a host city because the meeting “community” encompasses meeting planners, attendees, convention centers, hotels, restaurants, transportation, and more. For example, cancellation of the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia, a meeting with approximately 15,000 attendees, likely resulted in loss of more than $30 million to the city.
The short-term impact of COVID-19 is already apparent as organizations canceled essentially every national and international meeting, extending well beyond the scope of Radiology and cancer imaging, for the spring and summer. Many meetings were canceled for the first time ever in the history of an organization. Cancellations occurred long after organizations and cities had completed preparations for a meeting. Most participants also had paid fees for registration and costs of travel. The timetable for when to cancel or resume future meetings remains uncertain. I know that Washington University has already canceled many meetings and events through the month of September.
As the world collectively emerges from the short-term restrictions and impact of COVID-19, participants in professional meetings will face new sets of considerations, challenges, and realities moving forward. My goal is to consider issues related to the goals of professional meetings in the long term.
The current pandemic will have a major impact on all major professional meetings, not just in Radiology and cancer imaging. The extent and duration of this impact remains difficult to assess and quantify at this time. The impact will be easier to predict once this pandemic has some degree of “control”. The extent of the harm on personal health, public health, the profession of radiology, the field of cancer imaging, the economy, and economic impact on meeting participants and host venues are all areas that must be assessed by each sponsor of a professional meeting. The optimist would predict that the world will be back to “normal” in a few weeks or months, a successful vaccine and treatment will be developed soon, and the economy will be back on a positive growth rate shortly afterwards. In my view, this optimistic scenario will not happen.
More likely what will occur is that the COVID-19 pandemic will slow, however it will remain a threat that will force tough decisions regarding when and to what extent to change the current rules of personal and business conduct. No matter how fast (or slow) the world moves towards “normal”, professional meetings will be impacted. Some educational activities will move online. Attendance will likely fall due to factors including an increased opportunity for online education, a forced re-evaluation of the value/cost ratio of attending a national meeting for several days, the dramatic impact of the economic downturn, and anticipated slow recovery on medical institutions, universities, imaging departments and centers, and professionals in clinical imaging and imaging research.
Even when this pandemic is over, important considerations will remain for professionals in imaging and other fields. Persons will more closely evaluate the value of attending a professional meeting and likely reduce the number of meetings attended each year. Is “inperson” attendance necessary with the availability of video conferencing and local educational sources, particularly as professional meetings expand on initial successes with virtual participation? This evaluation will differ for academic versus private institutions and groups. The world-wide economy will not recover immediately, resulting in tighter budgets for staffing and less money for travel to meetings by persons at medical centers, universities, and industry. How many sales personnel, administrators, faculty, technicians, and trainees need to attend a meeting in person? How much exhibit space and overall size of meeting venue really are needed? How many restaurant dinners are scheduled?
Professional meetings will still meet many key objectives but will be different in size and scope. The most successful societies and organizations will be planning ahead not just for the next meeting, but how to adapt and evolve their meeting format over the next decades.
I close with my advice to the current leaders of organizations sponsoring major national and international professional meetings:
BE PREPARED is more than the Motto of the Boy Scouts. It is wise advice for organizations.
Let's make this pandemic more than just another crisis we survive. We can use lessons from the pandemic to improve our professional meetings and make our field stronger in the long run.