BMJ - Head To Head: Have international in-person medical meetings had their day?

12 November, 2021

CITATION: Head To Head: Have international in-person medical meetings had their day?

BMJ 2021; 375 doi: (Published 10 November 2021) restricted access :-(

Cite this as: BMJ 2021;375:n2345

'The pandemic has changed how conferences and meetings are conducted. [HIFA member] Richard Smith [chair, UK Health Alliance on Climate Change] says that now is the time to change the status quo forever to reduce unnecessary carbon emissions from travel. But Viknesh Sounderajah and Ara Darzi [Institute of Global Health Innovation] argue that going entirely virtual would lose many of the features that make meetings so valuable...'

COMMENT: Clearly this is not a dichotomous choice and both sides appear to agree that there should be fewer (or, at least, 'more rationalised) international conferences. Both sides agree also that some types of meetings do require to be face-to-face, such as COP26, where 'negotiations will be tough and will depend on late night meetings, eyeball to eyeball'.

What seems unresolved in this piece is the most important question of all: environmental sustainability of face-to-face versus virtual conferencing. Many of us would have assumed that thousands of people flying into an international conference would be vastly more damaging than the same nummber interacting virtually. But Sounderajah and Darzi claim (without specific evidence) 'The environmental footprint of virtual conferences may conceivably exceed that of the average in-person conference on account of their increased delegate attendance combined with the permanence of online content'. I for one would be truly amazed if this were the case. Can anyone on HIFA help with this question?

None of the discussants mention the role of asynchronous communication, as in virtual discussion forums such as HIFA. Some of us have promoted such methods as a 24/7 bridge for the 362 days *between* conferences - whether the latter are face-to-face or virtual.

Best wishes, Neil

Neil Pakenham-Walsh, HIFA Coordinator,