The first major conference in the vascular surgery universe to incorporate an in-person element as part of a hybrid format has been declared a success, portending what attendees might expect from the 2021 Vascular Annual Meeting (VAM) set for San Diego in August should it proceed in a similar fashion.
The Southern Association for Vascular Surgery (SAVS) annual meeting took place at the end of January in Scottsdale, Arizona, with about 40 people physically present in the room and many more tuning in digitally.
SAVS president Gilbert R. Upchurch Jr., MD, who was present in the flesh to deliver a presidential address focused on the importance of “grit” in vascular surgery, told Vascular Specialist the meeting had stayed true to its tradition of good science while maintaining pandemic-era social protocols.
“We were the first meeting to get together—it was clearly scaled down,” Upchurch explained. “The Southern Vascular prides itself on really good science, but also really good social and family interaction. The science was great. Given the constraints, we tried to keep six feet apart; there were only 40 people there; it was hard, but I would say, in general, it was successful.”
Most scientific presentations were delivered remotely in a recorded format. Most of the designated discussants for the talks, too, were not present in person. As a result, much of the discussion and questions from the audience saw presenters provide answers via phone link.
“The rule of thumb was, if you were not going to be present as a discussant, you had to have your remarks recorded,” Upchurch continued. “Not only did that make people stay within a certain timeframe, it made people condense and stay focused on the task of discussing the paper. For the most part, it also helped keep the meeting on track, which I thought was really important.”
The ultimate goal of the meeting—to generate new knowledge to help practicing vascular surgeons—was achieved, said Upchurch. “I think we delivered on that. That can be done through this format. A number of my partners who were back in Florida said they learned a lot from watching the hybrid meeting.”
SAVS secretary-treasurer William D. Jordan Jr., MD, noted the relatively low numbers present in the room compared to the 2020 attendance—about 25% of its usual in-person turnout. Yet, he described how the meeting had managed to replicate the robust, discussant-led question-and-answer to-and-fro that occurs at the end of scientific presentations for which SAVS is renowned. “While we have looked at the virtual format—and people are used to looking at the collage of different participants—[for us] it still was missing some of the personal, collaborative element,” Jordan said.
“And while we had presentations that were on the screen, the fact that we had some actual presence I think helped with that discussion. That’s one of the things that makes the Southern such an interesting meeting and so well-attended. People like the interchange between the people who are present. We were able to have an element of that discussion, and so we were able to rejuvenate some of that concern. Specifically, we had the moderators live, and even though there were some discussants that were prerecorded, almost always we had someone from the audience stand up and add another question.”
Benjamin J. Pearce, MD, associate professor of vascular surgery and endovascular therapy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was a moderator during both the postgraduate program session and scientific sessions.
Having experienced a series of fully virtual meetings over the course of the last year, he feels the hybrid format proved a superior offering.
“Sometimes you need to seamlessly whisper, give each other hand signals, or write notes back and forth,” he said. “That way, you can keep the discussion going, keep it on time. When you’re doing it on a virtual platform, you can send chat—but that’s always distracting. You’re trying to watch what the person is saying, the chatbox pops up so you’ve got to open a keyboard. At least the hybrid allows for a much more fluid meeting.”
Like it is with radio shows or TV news programs, Pearce added, the goal was to avoid dead air. “With the virtual format, knowing when you should interject is not intuitive. It’s very hard if you’re a panelist to know when to interject because you don’t want to cut another person off. It’s hard to direct those sort of things when you’re moderating because, again, it’s harder to cut somebody off without sounding like you’re being obstreperous. Whereas if you’re having a conversation with somebody, it sounds like you’re interjecting; it doesn’t sound like you’re interrupting. Those are subtle things, but that’s what having us all in the same room—doing the moderating—allows.”
SAVS immediate past president W. Charles Sternbergh, MD—who also attended the meeting in person—was variously a panelist, discussant and audience member. Those involved in managing the meeting had done a “tremendous job” blending the virtual and in-person elements, with about 80% of the talks digitally delivered, he said.
He emphasized the success of the post-presentation phone link to authors for questions from designated discussants and audience members, many of whom tuned in digitally and texted in questions. “Despite the fact most of the presenters were not there physically, there was still the ability to have a good, lively interchange of ideas around the talks.”
For Sternbergh, the hybrid format was a step in the right direction. “Is this as good as having everyone there in person? Certainly not,” he added. “There are intangibles that you lose from not having everybody present. But I thought it was a great compromise to be able to get things going in terms of having a meeting.”
For Pearce, what regional and national societies do best is provide camaraderie for members, bring widely distributed surgeons together in one spot to share ideas. To perform that function best, he said, the in-person meeting is necessary.
“We all go out and work in silos in a relatively small specialty compared to a lot of others. I’m lucky that I’m in a pretty big group, but a lot are in a group of one or two. They might not see another vascular surgeon in the entire week or month. It’s good to have interaction with people who do the same thing as you, because you realize you’re not alone. I think offering the hybrid for those who can’t travel in the future is probably a great thing to be able to do, but I also don’t think we should ever replace the goal of getting back to being together. Some of that is personality. Not everybody needs that sort of interaction. But those of us who are social creatures certainly do.”
Jordan, meanwhile, revealed preliminary data gathered from a survey SAVS sent out to attendees to ascertain their vaccination status. As of mid-February, all of the respondents had replied to say they had either had both doses of the vaccine, or they had previously contracted COVID-19 and had developed antibodies, he said.
“We surveyed and asked if there had been any COVID-19 illness since the meeting, and so far there has been none. So that’s something else to consider.”