ASCO: Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing, Baby

H. Jack West, MD


June 05, 2019

I'm always thinking about how technology can make our lives easier. So I came into the 2019 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) thinking about when and how we might eventually get to the point where we could all put on our virtual-reality headsets and watch the presentations we want to see, presented in real time, from our own homes or offices, and experience the presentations exactly as if we were sitting in Hall D1 of the gargantuan McCormick Place convention center.

Every year, part of me (most specifically, my feet) thinks of how the most important content from ASCO can be delivered digitally with great efficiency. On the surface, there are plenty of reasons to recommend this approach: the idea of being able to capture the key content without having to fly to Chicago, pay twice as much for a hotel room as you would a week earlier or later, and trek to McCormick Place to log 12 miles of steps just navigating from one session to the other.

But after having just experienced the ASCO meeting with 42,000 other members of the cancer care community, I came away realizing that even if it isn't feasible for everyone, the live event offers far more than just important oncology presentations.

Most obviously, the ASCO annual meeting is an opportunity to make new connections and reinforce old ones. Despite or because of its size, ASCO is punctuated by chance hellos to people we trained with but haven't seen in a decade or two; long-time remote, and often global, colleagues in our field who we only get to see once or twice a year; and new friends and potential collaborators on trials and projects. We can attend investigator meetings, receptions, and educational programs with all of our international colleagues who made the same pilgrimage.

Perhaps the greatest example of the added value of "brick and mortar" interactions is the eagerness of so many "Twitter colleagues," who have rich dialogues online throughout the year, to meet and take selfies together "IRL"—in real life. As valuable as social media and Twitter have become in facilitating introductions that transcend the limits of geography, people who follow and interact with each other online regularly feel not less but more motivated to take the critical step of meeting up, at least if the astonishing number of selfies with colleagues posted on Twitter at ASCO 2019 is any reflection of this inner drive.

Though the ASCO virtual meeting can deliver the core content of the original research and educational sessions presented at the ASCO annual meeting, there's also a unique energy and context-specific learning that comes from watching new material being shown publicly for the first time, on several giant screens simultaneously, as the presenter's voice reverberates throughout a room the size of an airplane hangar, alongside 8000 of your closest friends. Years later, I remember whispering first impressions to a friend who I sat with, as we considered what would be practice-changing and what was a new, promising lead.

I veer toward being cynical by nature. But I left this year's ASCO meeting—which has often been called the "Super Bowl of Oncology"—convinced that this analogy applies in many ways. Not only is it the biggest game of the year, but you may conclude that you can see it without the cost or hassle of travel by watching from home.

As I was reminded at ASCO this year, however, that like the Super Bowl, it's a different experience actually being there if you can. The science is a big part, but the glue that holds it together is the endless interpersonal connection. I can't imagine that it will ever be replicated by an online virtual experience.

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