On November 12-13, 2021, the Mountain West and the New England regions of SGIM held their second joint virtual regional conference. After the inability to meet in person due to the pandemic led to our first virtual and first combined conference in 2020,1 necessity required us to return to the virtual format one year later. We opted to again join forces given the success of the previous year. With two years experience, we identified themes and lessons useful to enhance future virtual, hybrid, and combined meetings by our and other SGIM regions.
The theme of our two-day meeting was “Adapting and Advocacy: Looking Back, Moving Forward,” and content was similar to prior in-person meetings. The meeting opened with oral plenaries featuring top scientific abstracts, innovations, and clinical vignettes from each region, and member submissions were highlighted through a poster session. We featured updates in hospital medicine, primary care, and medical education, and clinicians from both regions led workshops addressing clinical care, medical education, and career development. Workshops topics included creating a primary care peer promotion program, addressing racism in medical education, training primary care providers to perform brief mental health interventions in their clinical practice, and coaching educators to build self-confidence in their learners. Experts from both regions led roundtable discussions on mentoring, diversity and inclusion in education, advocacy, research/investigation, digital scholarship, and effective journal review. These discussions served as a venue for engagement, collaboration, and sharing of ideas across regions. Each region invited a keynote speaker to speak across the two days—Dr. Megan Gerber (Albany Medical Center) shared lessons about trauma-informed care in the COVID-19 era and Dr. Marlene Martin (University of California, San Francisco) spoke about hospitalization as an opportunity to reduce addiction inequities. Additional meeting highlights included virtual networking opportunities for each region and for trainees, region updates, and a concluding awards ceremony.
Power in Numbers
By joining forces, our two regions attracted speakers from across the nation. The diversity of speakers brought a broad range of expertise and perspectives, expanding the content and value of our meeting. We increased our usual number of participants. Additionally, conference attendees had a greater diversity of options to choose from in terms of workshops, roundtable discussions, and social networking opportunities. While a strictly in-person conference might not lend itself to these benefits, a hybrid conference has great potential to capitalize on the benefits of a virtual meeting.
When virtual options for presenting are available, meeting organizers can recruit speakers from anywhere. A hybrid model allows more people to participate who, due to cost, inconvenience, limited time for travel, or other barriers, might otherwise not be able or might choose not to attend.2
Virtual Format Expanded Submissions
Both our regions received submissions (mostly for posters) from outside of our regions. We hypothesize that this occurred due to the ease of submission, the absence of travel, and because we had not outlined geographic restrictions on the submission portals. We welcomed this unanticipated event as it broadened our sense of community, and we opted to include all submissions that merited inclusion by our usual criteria.
Anticipate receiving submissions from outside the region and explicitly spell out any submission restrictions. If decide to accept from outside their region, consider if non-region entries are eligible for prizes.
Benefits and Challenges of Pre-Recorded Sessions
Plenary sessions and updates were pre-recorded; workshops and roundtable discussions were live. During each pre-recorded plenary session and update, speakers were able to answer questions using a meeting platform chat function while attendees viewed the pre-recorded portion. At the recordings’ conclusion, speakers gave a live, moderated Q&A videoconference session. Far more questions were answered in this format, and the chat function supported increased participation. Chat questions and comments were fascinating to read and increased the value of the talk as well as the sense of community inspired by each speaker. The chat led very naturally to live closing statements during which speakers addressed the most pressing questions and tackled deeper concepts.
Audio and video quality were for the most part excellent. However, one session had poor audio due to a problem with the submitted file. For one session with two speakers, the pre-recorded videos were played out of order.
An additional pre-recording challenge was not everyone started playing the video at the same time; the live Q&A session therefore did not always perfectly line up for some attendees. Some sessions required back-and-forth toggling between different software platforms (in our case Swapcard and Zoom) to accommodate recordings and live video, which felt clumsy to many participants.
Check the quality of submitted videos ahead of time, ideally with enough time to allow for re-recording if needed. Enhanced guidelines around video submissions may be helpful. Do a trial run of each session to ensure videos are in the correct order.
Make a live announcement to all attendees to either click start to begin the recorded video on time or forego recorded video altogether. Make a live announcement when to toggle between different programs.
Poster Sessions and Meaningful Interactions
While much of our meeting easily transitioned to a virtual format, the poster session was the most challenging to recreate. In our one-hour poster session, participants could navigate links to access individual posters. Most poster authors pre-recorded brief presentations in addition to the poster, and presenters were available for live chat during the session. Positive aspects of the virtual format included instant access to any poster, the ability to view posters from both regions, and the option to view posters ahead of or even after the conference. We found, however, that participants did not engage with the poster authors in the same way as occurs during in-person poster sessions.
Consider a platform that allows more direct engagement between conference attendees and poster presenters. Gamification may also be a way to increase engagement.
Social Networking in a Virtual Format
Feedback received following our first combined virtual meeting was mostly about increasing social networking options. Virtual attendees missed having opportunities to meet and connect with others. The meeting platform did allow for participants to virtually “connect” and send messages to other attendees; however, few took advantage of this feature or participated in group community chats outside of the chat function that ran live during the conference sessions. While some sessions, such as the roundtable discussions, allowed for more socialization and networking, the informal opportunities to meet others between sessions or during poster sessions at an in-person meeting were difficult to re-create in the virtual environment. To address this, we held several virtual social hours following the plenary, including one specific for trainees. Though attendance was limited, perhaps due to the Friday evening time and attendees having other obligations at work or home, participants reported appreciating the additional networking opportunity.
Conference attendees desire opportunities for social networking, but recreating these in a virtual format is challenging. Holding specific sessions for social networking is one approach to providing these opportunities.
The second joint virtual SGIM Mountain West and New England regional conference was a success. By attracting national speakers and submissions spanning both regions, we were able to provide a greater diversity of content and reach a larger audience, including participants who might have not otherwise been able to attend. While we continued to face challenges in optimizing meaningful interactions during poster sessions and with overall social networking opportunities, the meeting built on feedback from the prior year to provide more opportunities for member engagement, including live chats, live Q&A sessions following pre-recorded sessions, and new social networking options. Our lessons learned can help shape future regional meeting planning, especially regarding virtual, hybrid and combined meetings.