A melting pot of curious minds congregate in-person and virtually at this year’s ESCRS

Swinging open its doors to ophthalmologists and industry, the RAI Convention Centre in Amsterdam greeted those who chose to attend the 39th Congress of the European Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons in person on 8th to 12th October and the, albeit somewhat scaled down, event did not disappoint. I felt privileged to be amongst those able to attend the hotly anticipated schedule of Symposia, Courses, Papers and Programmes in person; the 38th ESCRS had originally been slated for Amsterdam last year too, before being replaced with a fully virtual format when the coronavirus pandemic continued to cling on.

After two long years of conferences being confined to computer screens, it was a somewhat reassuring experience to witness delegates once again take to podiums, exhibition booths and coffee tables, sit together in the halls and discuss the latest advancements in ophthalmology face to face. And exciting too: the buzz of finally being able to conduct business interactions and share research findings in real life seemed to be putting a spring in everyone’s steps.

Despite attendees being provided with complimentary ESCRS-branded face masks when registering and collecting their name badges, fewer people chose to sport them in the congress centre than I had anticipated, even when networking within the confines of a fairly small (and much smaller than in previous years — perhaps to the relief of those with a less-than-perfect sense of direction) Exhibition Hall. Social distancing was also clearly now a thing of the past, and hands were shaken despite the occasional sign asking people to refrain (the elbow bump greeting must have JUST been a fleeting idea during lockdown).

Perhaps the setting had something to do with the relatively relaxed attitudes: I noticed fairly few anti-Covid-19 measures in place in Amsterdam in general whilst there, which is no doubt testament to the fact the Dutch, like many countries, are seeing the positive effects vaccination has had on society. I had a real taste of the changing times at a packed concert at the Het Concertgebouw which I attended on the Friday evening: hundreds of people gathered inside the famous venue to enjoy Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique and Stravinsky’s Firebird and there wasn’t a covered nose-and-mouth in sight.

That’s not to say the conference organisers at RAI did not take precautions to ensure those entering were deemed a low risk: I had to show my double-vaccination status and ID every time I wanted to enter the building. I also noticed that some exhibition booths had signs requesting that people sanitise their hands before entering.

One thing I had pondered as I collected my badge at on Day 1 was how the ‘hybrid’ nature of it, i.e., part-in-person, part-virtual, would work in practice. This was my first time physically attending such a unique format of conference since the pandemic began, so I was intrigued. According to figures released by the ESCRS, of the 7,122 registrations for the event, a whopping 3,000 of these had opted to participate virtually.

And I was impressed by how seamlessly the two formats were combined during the Symposia; when it was the turn of an off-site ophthalmologist to speak, a video of their talk appeared on the huge screens at the front of the Hall. Some of these had been pre-recorded (this did not ruin my enjoyment of them, as it was still effectively the first time they were being shown).

Other doctors were speaking live from their home country and thus were also able to participate in the Q&A sessions following their talks. I even attended a Session in which the Chair himself was sitting comfortably in his home study back in the UK, introducing the speakers from there, his well-stocked bookcase and criss-cross floral patterned wallpaper providing a visually appealing change of scenery to the usual off-white background you see in congress centres.

Video conferencing formats rarely come without some element of danger, but the technical difficulties were few and only minor; needless to say, they still sparked some sniggering in the crowds: speakers appearing to silently mime their talks (we’ve all heard the line “You’re on mute” enough times to last a lifetime, but there’s no sign those three little words are going away any time soon) or disappearing from view entirely (in one comical moment, an attendee eagerly awaited an answer to his question from the microphone he stood before at the front of the hall only for the presenter to go offline immediately — a mishap that prompted the Chair to suggest, in jest, of course, that the question had not gone down well!)

Overall, the blending of videos with in-person talks added another interesting dimension to the Symposia and by no means lessened the quality or accessibility of the information being disseminated. It’s a format that I suspect may be here to stay even in the post-Covid world, since there will always be reasons that people wishing to attend and/or present at congresses cannot participate in person: it seems better that they can do so in some sort of capacity than not at all, after all.

In the next part of my review of this year’s ESCRS, published next week, I’ll cover a few of the Symposia I had the pleasure of attending over the four days. Stay tuned to find out more!

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