The New England and Mountain West Regions combined virtual regional meeting on November 6-7, 2020, was marked by many firsts. By nature, it was the first time both that regions held a virtual meeting, teamed up to present a regional meeting, and called a historic presidential election during the meeting, causing both angst and excitement. Overall, the combined regional meeting was successful with feedback from attendees that a strong sense of community was present. The theme, “Reaching our Patients, Colleagues, and Learners in a Changing World,” helped participants feel connected to purpose when there is so much out of our control.
While the thought of transitioning to a virtual platform was daunting, SGIM selected Swapcard, which was very user-friendly. Upon logging in, meeting attendees were directed to an agenda and then to welcome videos from the regional presidents. The meeting was presented using a hybrid model of pre-recorded sessions for the oral abstracts, updates in medicine and plenaries; then live workshops and mentoring round tables. This hybrid allowed for a seamless way to hear the presenters and interact with them via a chat feature. Posters were uploaded to Swapcard for several days prior to the meeting that allowed attendees to view them on a flexible schedule. Presenters uploaded a short video describing their poster, and there was an hour segment to allow attendees to interact with authors via chat.
Merging with another region halfway into meeting planning wasn’t without challenges. Fortunately, the initial Mountain West and New England themes were similar and this allowed for alignment behind a common theme. Both leadership teams felt strongly that SGIM meetings were valuable for establishing and fostering relationship within and between the regions; thus, it was important that some content be available for individual regions while other content could be shared. Our leadership teams agreed that clinical updates should be shared, each region be represented equally, and oral abstracts and poster sessions kept separate.
Selection of our speakers was one of the most important and enjoyable parts of planning a shared meeting. Using our theme of “Reaching Our Patients, Colleagues, and Learners in a Changing World,” we elected to include both of our individually planned plenary speakers.
The first plenary was presented by former New England SGIM Leadership member and current Assistant Professor of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the VA Center for Health Equity, Dr. Utibe Essien.1 His talk on “Bending the Arc Towards Justice in Health” shared his personal path as a Black medical student and resident which sparked passion for his work towards improving health equities over the last several years. Dr. Essien spoke not only on health disparities at the clinical practice level but also at the health systems level. He left us with five take-home points which he called the 5 Ds: 1) Desegregate healthcare in the United States, 2) Divest from racist practice and policy, 3) Diversify the medical workforce, 4) Develop antiracist medical curricula and 5) Deepen community investments.
The closing plenary session was Dr. Sanjeev Arora’s presentation, “Democratizing Knowledge for Better Healthcare,” in which he described his career work on Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes).2 Project ECHO aims to reduce health disparities in underserved communities and uses expert teams to provide knowledge to physicians and clinics who would not necessarily be able to access that level of care otherwise. Project ECHO is now used across the country in many medical specialties. Dr. Arora discussed development of the program, and the key components of sustainability, including ongoing education for participating physicians.
Trainee engagement was a major highlight of this conference. Trainee participation on the leadership planning team served to ensure our first virtual meeting provided an excellent trainee experience. In the past, travel expenses and time away from coursework, registration costs, clinical experiences, and residency/fellowship interviews have presented barriers for trainees to participate in non-virtual conferences. This conference eased traditional pressures by waiving registration fees for all trainee SGIM members—the result was extensive trainee involvement throughout the conference. The virtual platform also allowed trainee presenters to share their work with a broader audience than typically possible in a physical conference setting.
The second day of the meeting started with Dr. Cassie Shaw from the University of New Mexico presenting Updates in Hospital Medicine. Her presentation was structured so that updates were presented in the sequence of events in a hospitalization, starting with admission, addressing issues that commonly arise during the treatment plan and ending with discharge. Throughout, she used humor about the uncertainty of caring for patients with COVID-19, and helped us see some levity in an otherwise challenging year.
The conference also featured an Update in Primary Care co-presented by Dr. Katie Jobbins from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Baystate and Dr. Jennifer Gilwee from the University of Vermont. They began with a walkthrough of four recent studies and their takeaways for primary care. The second half of the talk focused on the pandemic-inspired shift towards telemedicine, from lessons learned to innovations shared. Following this, roundtable mentoring groups were lively discussions with invited mentors on how to advance work in each respective area.
The first virtual meeting was not without struggles and frustrations. Due to platform selection a short time before the regional meeting, meeting planners had limited time to understand and prepare for the meeting format. In addition, navigating multiple time zones made it challenging to pick a block of time to present the content to both regions. There was much debate about pre-recorded versus live sessions prior to the meeting, but having one hour of live session per half-day seemed to go quite well for the meeting.
From an attendee standpoint, one of the drawbacks of the virtual conference was that it was more difficult to network with and meet other attendees, often noted as one of the main benefits of attending in-person conferences. These face-to-face interactions may lead to future mentorship or collaborations, and the human interactions that facilitate this can be lost on the virtual platform. However, there were also tremendous benefits of the virtual meeting, including cost savings for attendees without travel expenses, flexibility for families, the comfort of one’s own home or office, and the ability to interact with colleagues outside of the region. These features are relevant, and likely more actualized, in the upcoming SGIM national meeting.3,4
Despite some of the challenges, attendee feedback and member participation showed that this conference was a success. The virtual platform allowed attendees to learn and to share their academic work with the SGIM community. Perhaps more importantly, this meeting offered a much-needed sense of connection in the spirit of its theme, “Reaching our Patients, Colleagues, and Learners in a Changing World.”
Please note that the complete agenda of the SGIM Mountain West and New England Combined Regional Meeting is available via the following link: https://www.sgim.org/File%20Library/Unassigned/NE-MTN20-Agenda-V2-for-Web.pdf.