IMAST 2020 reaches a digital audience

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With the 2020 edition of the Annual Meeting on Advanced Spine Techniques (IMAST 2020; July 6–December 31) being the meeting’s first ever digital-only event, IMAST chair Han Jo Kim (Hospital for Special Surgery, New York) talks to Spinal News International about the logistical challenges of hosting a global spine event online, as well as the future of meetings in spine care.

IMAST 2020 is a web-based meeting with both live and pre-recorded material being delivered via a virtual meeting platform. Live virtual sessions run throughout July and August, replacing the physical event, which had been due to take place in Athens, Greece.

How challenging has it been to continue to deliver the IMAST meeting, given the challenges posed by COVID-19?

It is great that we can still hold the meeting, and now we are better equipped than we were at the start of the pandemic to pull it off. Everybody is much more familiar with the interface, I think that trying to do this back when the pandemic started would have been incredibly difficult for multiple reasons. Not only because people were dealing with the disruption caused by the pandemic locally and within their own micro-economies, but also the whole familiarity with the virtual interface was much less so back then. The concepts behind taking this to a virtual meeting platform has been an evolution since that time. We are in a good position now to be able to do it.

Have you had to adapt to adapt content and the programme? Has it been easy to transition from one format to the other?

It has been relatively easy. The hardest part has been the logistical aspects. The speakers are presenting so much data over a small period of time, keeping within time limits in pre-recorded presentations are difficult to enforce. If you are in a live meeting the moderator could work in reminding presenters on the time constraints. Dealing with some of these logistical challenges has been some of the challenges we have faced in adapting to the virtual platform.

Different from a live meeting, there is the danger with a digital meeting that people could run into some sort of tech-fatigue, in that people are not going to sit in front of a screen and watch presentation after presentation for six hours. After an hour and a half or two hours you might reach a phase where you tune out, and so [it is important to] make sure that the programme is short and it comes in spurts, as opposed to a three-day programme where it is eight hours a day. And speaking of time, considerations have been made to optimise the best time period to host the meeting being mindful of all international attendees, strategising to optimise attendance and participation. Having an in-person meeting does not have this challenge since everyone is in one place! Being mindful of these elements has been the main considerations in the adaptation.

Will there be a continued legacy of digital meetings resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, and what do you see the future landscape for events being like?

I do think there will always be a virtual element to meetings going forward. There is a built in efficiency to it that people will love to take advantage of. But, there are certain things that cannot be replicated virtually so I believe in-person meetings will return, but the virtual components will also be run simultaneously for those who want to log in.

Once some treatment algorithm or vaccine that is proven to be successful for COVID-19 is established, I think people will be more ready to travel and go to in person meetings. Until then, I think the virtual platform is here to stay, and even afterwards a portion of all the meetings are probably going to have a sign-on time, or something similar, to participate. In the end, it might result in a greater attendance overall, but the in-person portion might be a little smaller because some people, instead of travelling for eight hours, are signing-on for a few hours during the day. I think we will see a shift in these type of dynamics.

How important have telehealth and other digital tools been in spine care during the pandemic?

I definitely think telehealth is one great thing that has occurred from this pandemic. It is something that our institution has been working on for the last few years and they were set to release the platform about a year from now. Actually, because of the COVID situation, they had to facilitate everything and make it go much faster. So, they released the Alpha version when COVID-19 started, and now it is already in Beta and it is pretty much at the full polished launch. I am using telehealth regularly and it is great for my patients. A lot of them appreciate it because they do not want to travel to Manhattan, and some do not necessarily need to, if they are postoperative patients who are doing well, for example. I find that the ones in really bad shape, they still like to make the initial contact and then they will come and see me on the following visit. But, the telehealth advancement has been a very good development. It has streamlined and made the delivery of care much more efficient. I think that is here to stay, and there are many ways we can utilise that to make the whole healthcare system a little more efficient.

It is not just telehealth and care delivery, it is also education. I am involved with the Fellowship education here at HSS, and I see so many opportunities for the dissemination of education with this platform, that we are just beginning to recognise. Things like augmented reality and live cadaver courses that can be done by video. There is a lot to be done, and I think it is an opportunity. As I said in my IMAST address, Albert Einstein once said: ‘Amongst every crisis, rises an opportunity.’ So, this is the opportunity.

What should participants look out for in particular from the 2020 IMAST programme?

There has been a move in the last two or three years to try and refocus and identify IMAST as a meeting that focuses on innovative technologies, so we have really worked hard to make the programme focus on these things. Some new technologies, such as vertebral body tethering, and robotics and navigation. The Robotics and navigation section should be exciting as experts will debate which robot is best and why.  In the Tethering session, we will have experts discussing the indications and complications of the procedure as we are in a worldwide verge of critically analysing the data behind this new procedure and as we decide on adopting this safely for our patients.

I hope that the Q&A platform that we have is going to promote a lot of interaction. Sometimes people are less likely to go up to a microphone at a big meeting because there are 800 people sitting in the audience. I am hoping that the Q&A platform we have is going to promote some good discussions.

How important is it to replicate the sense of community that you would usually create in a physical environment in a digital setting?

I think it is important to do – but there are limitations. There are things that you will get from a virtual meeting, that you would not necessarily get from an in-person meeting, just like there are certain things that you would get in an in-person meeting, that you would not get in the virtual meeting.  We are all human.  In a one-on-one discussion, you can get a much better feel for a person and situation than doing it virtually, also, there is more excitement in live, in-person debates.  Perhaps in the future we can have a meeting with an augmented reality platform that can bring both worlds together and combine strengths of both types of meetings into one. Until then, I believe in the resilience of both live and virtual meeting platforms.


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