Sustainable medical conferences in the post-covid-19 world

The medical community should use this moment to promote international scientific conferences that are more environmentally friendly, say Etienne Delacrétaz, Romaine Delacrétaz, and Nicholas Rowe

“When one door closes, another opens” as the saying goes. And so many organisers of medical conferences have found, like the European Society of Cardiology (ESC), for example. When the covid-19 pandemic prompted a ban on public gatherings, the ESC, like many societies, moved its annual meeting online, with the ambition “to disseminate the best ground-breaking cardiovascular science in a totally new, digital experience.” Necessity has forced many events and conferences to take this step, but we have since wondered if the switch to remote working could inspire better working practices: might the covid-19 crisis prompt the medical community to meaningfully address climate change?

Medical conferences evolved before global connectivity, in an era when it was necessary to travel in order to meet with and present ideas to your peers. With the support of professional conference organisers, the attractiveness of large conventions has increased over the years, and the number of delegates has been a major factor in evaluating their success. As an example, the 2019 ESC meeting in Paris had its highest attendance figure in history with 33 510 participants from more than 150 countries, and the ESC organises a further 13 other international conferences every year dedicated to cardiology subspecialties.

Yet this measure of success comes with its own costs, for while international medical conferences represent a major industry, they come with an excessive carbon footprint. Conference organisers therefore have a duty to make them both more sustainable and ecologically responsible. The impact of conference travel is little appreciated or researched, but one study has shown that attending a 2.5 day conference increases an individual’s carbon footprint by more than 6.7 times the normal EU daily level of production.

Scientists and the medical community are well aware that climate change is a threatening public health issue that requires an urgent response. According to the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, the sum of all nations’ current commitments under the 2017 Paris Agreement is far from sufficient, and “current progress is inadequate.” Yet despite this, in many countries, radical governmental policies have yet to materialise, even in the face of increasing public attention and growing pressure from society.

To compensate for this political inertia, actions and changes in practice from corporations, smaller organisations, and even at an individual level are needed. To capture this approach to mitigating climate change, physicist and philosopher Aurélien Barrau uses the notion of fractal changes, which take place at every level, across scales, and in all strata of societies. At the individual or small corporation level, such actions may appear insufficient or as if they won’t have any significant consequences. However, even if this is true, some will still have a symbolic value, and motivate other people or bigger corporations to act in a similar way.

As citizens, caregivers, and members of health institutions, the medical community should use this moment to promote behavioural shifts that are likely to persist after the current pandemic crisis is over. The developments we’ve witnessed around digital communication in medicine and the avoidance of mass travel for research and education are clear examples of what we can do if needed. Despite numerous technical and organisational challenges, this pandemic has shown that we can reduce our carbon footprint, while at the same time reaching wider audiences, improving diversity and equity, and providing more open and affordable ways of sharing knowledge and research. 

The adaptation of physical conferences to online provision and the switch to remote working as a result of the pandemic have shown our potential for improvement, and can inspire us to have better working practices for the future. However, efforts to revive economic activity (i.e. by professional conference organisers, and the travel and hotel industries) may erode any aspirations for long term change, and there’s a risk that after the present pandemic is over, wider society will want to forget about the changes we had to make to our everyday lives as quickly as possible.

Medical societies and scientific organisations and committees should therefore urgently undertake symbolic and useful action when it comes to their conferences and educational offerings. We should invite young colleagues, physicians, and scientists to share their ideas; design new digital approaches with the support of IT specialists; and assess how we can improve the dissemination of knowledge and research in online conferences. This will help make international scientific conferences and communication environmentally friendly and responsible in a way that can last. The lessons we have learnt during this pandemic have come at a great cost, but we have a chance to use them to improve our post-pandemic future.

Etienne Delacrétaz is a consultant cardiac electrophysiologist and professor in cardiology in the Department of Cardiology at the University and Hospital of Fribourg and Clinic Cecil Lausanne, Switzerland. He is a member and fellow of the ESC. He supports action on climate change. 

Romaine Delacrétaz is a clinician in pediatrics in the Department of Pediatrics at the Hospital of Yverdon, Switzerland. She addresses societal issues in medicine through associative activities.

Nicholas Rowe is a published researcher on the efficacy and implications of current conference practices, especially in regard to their sustainable impact on fiscal and knowledge economies. He is based in Pello, Finland.

Competing interests: Nothing further to declare.