Keeping it real or going virtual?

Feb. 19, 2021 / By Jacee Robison, RN, MS

All of us experienced quite a shift from the norm in 2020, and we continue to adapt to this new environment in 2021. We stay home, some of us work remotely, we shop online, wear a mask, help kids with schooling, along with countless other things. One major change for those of us in health care, including my field of medical informatics is that conferences we usually attend have all become virtual. Given the amount of collaboration, innovation and information sharing that occurs in the research and development for medical terminologies and standards, my colleagues and I count on industry conferences to finalize decisions, generate new ideas and form new contacts – and it’s always good to see old friends once a year!

So, what have I learned about the virtual conference experience? Here’s a recap of a few online conferences I attended, along with some tips for anyone planning to participate in 2021 virtual events.

I recently attended the SNOMED CT1 Expo and the AMIA2 annual conference. Both conferences did a great job with the virtual format which helped make up for not being there in person. I was particularly interested to see how AMIA’s annual symposium would be conducted virtually, having attended the event in person in prior years.

AMIA’s conference website was designed to mimic walking into the conference center. Attendees could visit a virtual exhibit hall, enter sessions and view posters. Not only did the sessions and workgroup meetings have fascinating topics, but the speakers were fantastic with engaging presentations. I appreciated being able to stand, sit and stretch during the virtual sessions, as normally during an in-person session I would be sitting the whole time. As a new (and first time) mother, attending the virtual symposium was convenient, especially with the new feature of recorded sessions which conference goers can access to for six months after the symposium. The thought of leaving my new baby home or traveling with him was overwhelming, so I’m glad I could attend from home. I wondered too if AMIA was able to secure some of its high-profile speakers—including Dr. Fauci—because travel was not needed.

The SNOMED CT Expo had a similar design and allowed attendees to access recorded sessions after the conference (for three months). All the virtual conferences had some technical difficulties, but they did not detract significantly from the overall experience. The conferences did see higher attendance as a result of the virtual medium, which I found to be a positive outcome. Not everyone would have been able to attend in-person, due to travel expenses or other circumstances.

AMIA still charged a registration fee, as well as an additional cost for accessing the recorded sessions after the conference. Considering that AMIA would have been held in Washington, D.C., the travel cost would have been a significant expense. The best price was at the SNOMED CT Expo: Registration fees were completely waived! Also, as SNOMED CT is an international terminology, the Expo is normally held outside of the U.S.—which is why I have not attended previously. Thus, the virtual Expo was an unprecedented opportunity for my teammates and me – practically the entire team signed up so we could access the recorded sessions on our own time!

There were certainly cons to holding virtual conferences. For example, missing out on “feeling” the audience’s reactions. There were times I thought an aspect of a presentation was off target, but I couldn’t “read” the rest of the audience to gauge their opinion. Also, networking was a bit challenging; at an in-person conference, I have the opportunity to meet and talk with new people during breaks or meals. The events did have networking chatrooms, but this was just not the same in a virtual setting—it was more difficult to form those personal connections.

In contrast, the organized networking events were more effective. The Nursing Informatics Working Group (NIWG) and Women in AMIA (WIA) groups had separate breakout sessions with pre-planned topics. An assigned leader for each group kicked off the conversation and kept it flowing. I found this format to be an easy way of getting to know people, especially those I would not normally have had the opportunity to meet.   

In the future, we may see a combination of the in-person and virtual conference options. The interaction between peers and the ability to network will always be much easier in person. However, having recorded sessions available after the conference has been helpful. Perhaps, when meeting in-person is feasible again, conferences can record both the live presentations and Q&A sessions and make them available online? No matter how future conferences are conducted, 2020 proved that holding a virtual conference can be done and done successfully.

I hope my experiences at these conferences offer some idea of what you will experience when venturing to industry meetings online. Below are some tips to consider when attending virtual events:

  • Evaluate the agendas. All conferences publish an agenda in advance of the topics or papers to be covered, and there will usually be concurrent sessions. Make a note of which topics or papers are of most interest.
  • Create a shared calendar. A shared calendar among you and your teammates is very helpful for deciding who will cover which sessions.
  • Present what you learned: After the conference, plan an internal educational session with colleagues to present notes to one another. Suggest which session recordings are worth checking out (for those who couldn’t attend “live”). In the virtual setting, recordings are accessible for a certain time period, so you can refer back to presentations you were particularly interested in.
  • Take advantage of committees and working groups. See what committees or working groups will be meeting at the conference. Join those that look interesting and get caught up on the issues being considered so you’ll have a background on the important topics that will be discussed during the conference.
  • Take your time to get the full value. While it’s very tempting to attend a virtual conference because of the significant cost savings from not having to travel, you must spend time listening to the recordings to get the most out value.

Jacee Robison, MS, RN, is a nurse informaticist with the Clinical Terminology group at 3M Health Information Systems.


  1. SNOMED CT: The Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine Clinical Terminology is a comprehensive clinical terminology that provides clinical content and expressivity for clinical documentation and reporting. The SNOMED CT Expo is held annually and offers keynotes speakers, multi-stream concurrent programs, hands-on tutorials and workshops, and an exhibit hall featuring SNOMED CT enabled applications.
  2. AMIA: The American Medical Informatics Association is a community committed to the vision of a world where informatics transforms people’s care. The AMIA Symposium is held annually and is the nation’s largest gathering of informatics professionals, attracting attendees who represent health systems, academia, clinical research, government, public health, health IT, research institutes, pharmaceutical and medical device companies.