How to Maximize the Virtual Medical Conference Experience

A woman attends a virtual medical conference from a laptop in her living room.

While some events are returning to in person, many others continue as virtual conferences. After navigating more than a year of virtual medical events, there are a few things I have learned that might be useful for getting the most out of the virtual medical conferences you’ll be attending.

1. Plan Ahead for the Virtual Medical Conference

During virtual medical conferences, I have actually been able to watch more sessions than in prior years. The availability of slide decks and the option to watch recorded sessions at my convenience was a definite positive side to the virtual platform. 

If you sort through the program to decide what you are interested in ahead of time, you can efficiently attend multiple sessions, meetings and poster presentations without walking around the immense conference hall venue – my feet thank me for the lack of blisters from running down hallways in heels. This allows you to focus on areas that are of specific interest to you and your career development, rather than wandering into a session because of proximity or convenience.

2. Prepare Your Environment

Leave your home or find a space that makes you committed to being present during the meeting. Participating in virtual medical conferences last year while seated on the barstool in my kitchen made it too convenient to wash dishes, start dinner, check my EHR, and get distracted by the millions of other tasks and life errands that come up when you are not on the “conference island.” It is hard to explain that you can’t run a quick errand because you are at a meeting when you are sitting in your home looking at the computer in your sweatpants. Wear headphones to tune out background noise, find a comfortable chair, and dress like you are at an actual meeting. Full disclosure, I have not been doing this regularly, but I do notice a shift in my frame of mind when I get ready as if I’m going to an in-person meeting. Basically, get in the zone. By carving out the space and time to engage in the meeting, you will be less distracted and more productive (switching between tasks can waste up to 40% of productive time).

3. Stay Focused

With everything becoming increasingly virtual, my attention span has shortened considerably and my need for immediate gratification is magnified. I have made the mistake of starting a session, zoning out, then popping into another concurrent session. At the end of the one to two hours, I end up feeling like I missed the substance of any session – thus, getting less out of the meeting. According to research in the early 2000s, the human attention span has decreased from 12 to 8 seconds, with a maximum attention span of 20 minutes. 

Most of the sessions last about 45 minutes. Luckily, the format of these talks are generally split up to have different speakers as well as moderated Q&A sessions, allowing for shifting attention and reengagement. Video call fatigue and eye strain are real things. Try employing the 20-20-20 rule: for every 20 minutes looking at a screen, take a break and look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds to reduce eye strain. It is normal for your mind to wander, but try and commit to focusing in chunks on the talks you are interested in. You can even nerd out and take notes – I do!

4. Participate in medical conference discussions

On a virtual platform, there is no barrier to entry – walking down to the microphone and waiting in line to pose a question to the speaker can be intimidating. The virtual format allows for more interaction, especially from those who may be otherwise nervous or shy in a large, live group. Use the chat function to connect with other attendees and post questions. Community hubs will allow you to meet with and, most importantly, have group discussions with others who are interested in specific disease states or other areas of interest. These are great places to turn on your camera and network with your peers about the topics you are passionate about – you can build collaborations for future projects or just relax and chat with other inspiring, excited, friendly faces!

Not surprisingly, virtual medical conferences and meetings can lead to a sense of isolation or disconnection. Less impromptu chatting or sidebar conversations can be both a plus and a minus. Consider watching the meeting with small groups of friends or colleagues (bandwidth permitting). You can debrief between sessions or even schedule small social gatherings, if inclined, to emulate the connectedness of being at the live meeting.

Anisha Dua, MD, MPH
Rheumatologist, and Director of the Northwestern Vasculitis Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Published November 15, 2021

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