Virtual conferences fall short for networking, social interaction

2020 05 19 16 24 2623 Businessman Remote 400

Virtual radiology conferences generally got high marks in a new international survey published in European Radiology on 2 June. But they fell short in one key area: a lack of social contact and networking opportunities.

Virtual conferences have become commonplace as a substitute for in-person meetings that were postponed or rescheduled due to social distancing and travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many meetings have just recently begun returning to in-person formats, and some are still retaining a virtual component for attendees who are still reticent to travel.

In the new study, a multinational research team led by Dr. Gennaro D'Anna of ASST Ovest Milanese in Legnano, Italy, noted that virtual meetings that were once restricted to small groups have been rapidly expanded to serve large national and international audiences. Even as in-person meetings begin to return to the conference calendar, many have proposed continuing with hybrid events that combine virtual and in-person components.

But what elements should be retained from hybrid events? To learn what parts of virtual meetings attendees valued -- and what parts they didn't like -- D'Anna et al conducted a survey with 16 questions that was disseminated to members of the European Society of Neuroradiology, as well as to international radiologists over social media channels like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. The researchers received 508 respondents to the survey from a total of about 6,000 recipients.

Questions for the survey ranged from the preferred duration of a virtual meeting to how attendance fees should be structured. They also asked respondents whether they would prefer virtual or in-person if both formats were available, and what elements of a virtual meeting they found most useful. The survey also asked respondents to rate negative elements of virtual meetings.

In all, 80% of the respondents said they had attended at least one virtual meeting. Short meetings were preferred: 43% said they preferred a meeting of a half-day or less. Most respondents said they believed that virtual meetings should be priced less than in-person events.

As for the elements of virtual meetings that respondents most valued, the researchers found that the educational aspect ranked highest on a five-point scale.

Best aspects of virtual meetings
Element Score on 5-point scale
Ability to watch on own time 4.54
Absence of need to travel 4.44
Lower costs 4.02
More time efficiency 3.95
Ability to follow lectures more easily 3.89
Ability to hear clearly 3.31
Better childcare logistics 3.08
Q&A interactions 2.69
Ease of speaking up 2.67

But there were also negative aspects to virtual meetings, chief among which was decreased networking opportunities and no human contact. Respondents also cited an absence of continuing medical education (CME) and difficulty attending due to clinical duties as among the drawbacks.

The researchers said the feedback on negative aspects of virtual meetings highlighted the challenges that event organizers have experienced in replicating the human contact that's prevalent during in-person events. Social media and chat functions have not stepped in to fill the void, they found.

"The feedback we received shows that, despite the commitment by meeting organizers to stimulate discussions through the use of chat platforms and social media, further efforts and new tools may be necessary to address this point," the authors wrote.

In fact, the findings of the new study echo those of previous research by Beste et al in Insights into Imaging that found that Twitter activity actually plunged during virtual conferences, compared with in-person meetings. They proposed that a lack of social interaction and interpersonal communication during virtual meetings could have led to the decline -- a decline that also reduced the viral nature of social networking. The survey was conducted from June to August 2020.

D'Anna et al concluded that in the future, the optimal choice for respondents was a combination of in-person and virtual meeting. While this may be more difficult to organize, such a hybrid format could make conference content more accessible to a larger audience and reduce geographic and economic barriers to attending.

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