What is the future of the conference?
There is no doubt that the COVID pandemic is going to change the World. When we consider orthodontics, there will be changes in the way that we deliver our care. However, other areas are likely to be influenced. One of these is the conference. This post is my personal view on the future of orthodontic meetings.
Most conference organisers have cancelled their meetings because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The last major meeting to announce cancellation was the World Federation of Orthodontists meeting in Japan. This has now moved to a virtual conference, and we await further details with interest. Other meetings were postponed to next year. As things stand, the new conferences are going to follow the usual structure with the possibility of some presentations being virtual. But are these steps sustainable with concern about being close to other people and potential problems with travel?
I will start my discussion by looking back at an editorial that I wrote for the Journal of Orthodontics in 2002. This was soon after the 9/11 attacks, and I had decided not to fly for a while. This resulted in me pulling out of a couple of conference presentations. As a result, I wrote about the “value of the conference. I questioned the value of conferences for the dissemination of information and stated;
“When we consider the information that is available from the presentations, a review of past conferences reveals that it is frequently expert opinion based around a few case reports, the early publication of study results (which may change before publication in refereed journals), neither with much hard science”.
I went on to suggest that conference proceedings could be refereed, as this was done in other areas of medicine. I also wondered if we would make better use of our time by obtaining clinical information from the refereed journals and not the conferences.
Finally, I mentioned that one significant value of the conference was the social aspect and meeting up with colleagues from all over the World. This allows a great exchange of ideas and philosophies.
Changes to the conference?
Since 2002, I subjectively feel that the orthodontic conference has changed. There is still a high proportion of clinical “show and tell” lectures, but they are now balanced by more research presentations. But has this style of conference gone?
I cannot help feeling that it has. My perception is, of course, influenced by my own feelings about travel. At the moment, I cannot imagine going to an airport, queuing in a small security zone, then lining up at gates to get on a crowded plane for up to 8 hours. Never mind, packing into a conference centre with crowded lecture theatres. This may change if there is a vaccine for COVID, but we are not sure that this will happen. As a result, we may not be able to hold the “traditional” conference for a while.
The virtual conference?
The virtual conference could provide us with a solution. There is undoubted, tremendous scope because many speakers have become experienced in the use of Zoom and other platforms. Currently, there are proposals for several virtual conferences based around a couple of days of continuous presentations. This may appear compelling; however, this means that “delegates” will have to put time aside in their diaries to “attend”. There may be hesitation to do this, particularly as clinicians may feel the need to be working in the clinic.
One solution to this may be to simply record the presentations and put them on open access platforms. This will let people view presentations in their own time. Importantly, this may enable us to make efficient use of our time.
What about the trade?
Moving to a virtual conference would mean that there is no opportunity for the trade component. In addition to providing an important component to delegates, this results in considerable income to the conference. I cannot see a solution to this problem. However, several companies are holding their own virtual meetings where their clinical salesmen present their products. Furthermore, I wonder if they are increasing their social media presence, but this is just my subjective opinion.
What about the speakers?
I have given keynote presentations at many conferences, and I have enjoyed every meeting that I have attended. I have experienced great hospitality, and it has allowed us to travel all over the World. So, my views are influenced by my experiences. I feel that it would be a loss for speakers to not attend conferences. However, this is balanced by the fact that presentations only need preparing once before posting. Thus, saving a great deal of time away from their regular work.
One of the major disadvantages of the traditional conference is cost and accessibility. For example, conference registration, social events and accommodation are expensive. Furthermore, our meetings are not accessible to orthodontists who do not have the resources or time to travel. By making the conference more available through online lectures, we will be able to inform more people. For example, I have been doing some webinars during the lockdown, and my highest “attendance” was 1700 people who did not have to pay anything. This can only be a good development.
This is a hard time for us all, and it is difficult to see a way forwards. We are continually being told that there is going to be a new “normal”. In some ways, this should better than the way that things were. I cannot help thinking that the traditional conference has had its day.
Indeed, we may be rapidly moving to the exchange of information using lectures on freely accessible platforms. We will also not be travelling a long distance to meetings at a cost to ourselves and our environment. Paradoxically, these are fascinating and exciting developments that may change orthodontics.
I hope that the specialist societies can embrace this challenge when they consider their future conferences.
p.s. since I published this post I have heard that the AAO will be making their next meeting in Boston both conventional attendance and virtual. This is a great step and I am sure that the attendance will be high. Well done AAO, I hope that the other specialist societies can do the same.
Emeritus Professor of Orthodontics, University of Manchester, UK.