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The first ever virtual EULAR conference has hit a few speed bumps, with some rheumatologists being unable to view the plenary sessions live due to the website being overloaded

The first ever virtual EULAR conference has hit a few speed bumps, with some rheumatologists being unable to view the plenary sessions live due to the website being overloaded.

The pre-recorded sessions are working fine, but some rheumatologists are finding it difficult to stay as engaged as they would like to be.

Many Australian rheumatologists were looking forward to being in Frankfurt and meeting their colleagues face to face over a German beer and a schnitzel. It’s hard for online videos to compare with that.

Digital conferences have some advantages. They’re definitely more convenient. But there’s something that’s been lost too, writes Dr David Liew, a rheumatologist at Austin Hospital in Victoria.

Q: How was EULAR virtual different from the normal EULAR experience?

A: It was different in more ways than it was the same. For better or worse, watching pre-recorded videos at your desk at home always will be a very different experience to attending in person.

The recorded video thing was interesting. Maybe this reflects badly on me, but sometimes I zone out because I’m tired or because I’m… well, less interested. Pre-recorded videos enable skipping but also pause and rewind. Maybe I’ll miss things because I’m not confronted.

It was brilliant to be able to catch concurrent sessions though, without having to plot things out on a map and run between rooms!

There are some simple logistic benefits/drawbacks: no side travel/good eating, but also no wandering around a massive conference complex, jetlagged and looking for shade.

Q: Did EULAR virtual meet your expectations?

A: You’ve got to give credit though, they clearly had to pull this together on an incredibly tight timeline, and I can’t imagine the financial pressure they would have been under.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, to be honest. It’s different, they’ve clearly tried hard to add value here, but I think there’s going to be a bit of time before they figure out how to maintain the feel of a ‘real’ conference whilst adding value.

Q: What could have been improved?

A: Predictably, at 9pm (the designated start time):

I still can’t view talks from the opening plenary abstract session – maybe it’s just me, but there will definitely be people with less patience than me who will just give up (I really want to hear about avacopan though).

The first poster session is this morning, and it doesn’t look like you can engage with the poster presenters, so that’s a major disappointment. Surely that’s the whole point of the poster hall? It’s also no fun without the questions at the end of the abstracts – to misquote Paul Keating, there has to be a bit of sport in this for all of us, and usually at these meetings there’s someone stripped down and ready to go…

I’m sure they’re working hard on it though, and I’m just happy to be able to get something rather than no EULAR at all.

Q: Were there enough sessions that you found interesting? Did you get bored/restless watching the sessions?

A: I was fighting off sleep, and I am now, but as always there’s too much content at this meeting to get bored. Restless with frustration at the website, yes, but not bored.

Q: Do you think there’s room for more virtual conferences in rheumatology? How might they deliver the same kind of benefits as F2F conferences?

A: We might not have much choice given the state of the world, and it’s certainly cheaper for the end consumer. The reality is that it changes the model in ways we haven’t overcome yet. If sponsorship is needed to make these meetings run, how do we manage that effectively? How do we allow for active networking, and the conversations in front of posters/on the side of the conference which are so often the most important part of these meetings?

On the other hand, there are some great reasons why virtual conferences might democratise the conference experience. It will certainly make it more accessible for attendees from private practice, from low socioeconomic countries, and for those with family commitments, and that’s got to be a good thing. The more accessible these conferences are for everyone, the better.

The ACR will be watching very closely! I know they’re thinking about how to address these issues, running focus groups to get ideas on this, talking about genuinely innovative mechanisms for engagement. It should be said that even before the pandemic, Donna Hoyne and the team were trying to innovate electronically. I’m sure they will be taking it to a more sophisticated level on all those fronts – not to mention that we’ll all be a lot more used to electronic meetings by then.

Q: What are the limitations of virtual conferences?

A: I think it’s very tempting to think you can fit this around a normal work day. If you’re only looking to watch one or two talks, that’s probably true, but ‘doing’ a conference properly is a full-blown exercise which can be tiring in itself, let alone with a full day of clinic every day before and minimal sleep after.

We’ll crack the code, one day, and it will be a lot smoother than EULAR 2020, but at the same time there’s so much great content – they could do it over Zoom or over the phone and I’d still be there…

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