It’s Irresponsible to Hold a Medical Conference During the Coronavirus Epidemic
Aggregating that many providers in one place is a bad idea.
For many of us, the yearly medical conference is a welcome break from the day-to-day. A chance to meet up with colleagues we rarely see, learn what new research is going on in our field, do some networking, and maybe take in the sights of a new city.
But this year, amid the coronavirus epidemic, the medical conference may pose a public health risk.
Though initially slow to act, more and more conferences are being cancelled as infections increase — there’s an up to date list here on Medscape. Is this a good idea?
There’s a pretty straightforward case here. Medical professionals are at higher risk of exposure to coronavirus since we come into contact with lots and lots of patients. Gathering a large group of medical professionals in a single place increases the risk of exposure further. Factor in airplane flights to and from the conferences, and the chance that infection is spread is significant. And remember, although many of us are lucky enough to be relatively healthy and thus at low risk of significant complications, many of our patients are not.
By the way transmission of covid-19 at a medical conference may have already happened. Two infected physicians from Australia reportedly attended a radiology conference with 77 other practitioners a couple of weeks ago.
Friday, it was reported that 3 Boston residents contracted Covid-19 at a meeting organized by Biogen.
To me, the decision is pretty clear. Though I’ll admit I’m not staring at the balance sheet of a medical organization — these conferences are often their #1 source of revenue.
But, as I’ve been somewhat open about expressing this, some folks have suggested that we’re all over-reacting. After all, we conduct conferences in the midst of flu season every year.
And that got me thinking — jeez — should we be having these conferences at all? So I dug into the data a bit to find out: how dangerous are medical conferences?
Spread of disease at a medical conference is not a new phenomenon.
In 1969, a report in the Lancet documented an outbreak of influenza at an international medical conference. One-third of attendees were infected.
But to be fair most of the reports of conference outbreaks aren’t from respiratory viruses, but from contaminated food.
In 1990, at a conference of 427 physicians in Wales, 196 contracted salmonella due to a contaminated chicken buffet. Here’s a histogram you’d never want to be a part of.
Over 1600 doctor-days were lost to the National Health Service due to that little poultry problem.
So yes, these things happen. They lead to a loss in productivity. And, ordinarily, we could absorb that. But currently, we have to contend with the possibility that our health systems may be stretched to their limits, and those “doctor-days” lost might be a major problem.
Of course, there is a downside to these cancellations. I still believe medical conferences serve a good purpose — disseminating knowledge, cohering a specialty around best practices for care, and importantly giving younger providers, trainees and students, a chance to meet with those at the top of their field.
So, here’s my pitch. Medical conferences occurring in the next couple of months should be cancelled or held virtually — we can re-evaluate later conferences as time goes on. Trainees, students, and fellows should have their registrations refunded, but attendings like me should forfeit the registration fees. Treat it as a donation to a non-profit that has fallen on some really hard times. Pharma sponsors should do the same thing. Keep these organizations afloat, so we can have conferences again next year, when, by one mechanism or another, we’ll all be immune.
This commentary first appeared on medscape.com