ASCO20 Virtual Scientific Program: Largest Global Meeting of Oncology Professionals Successfully Goes Online

Jun 01, 2020

By Katherine H. Crawford, MA, PMP

Converting the largest gathering of oncology professionals in the world into a virtual meeting was a daunting prospect, but with much planning, creativity, hard work, and flexibility, ASCO was able to make the latest discoveries in cancer care available to the oncology community at the end of May as intended.

When the decision was announced in late March that the 2020 ASCO Annual Meeting would become a virtual event, the enthusiasm and commitment was high, but there was also the discomfort that comes with change—both on the part of staff and attendees—as well as the pressure to maintain the high standards of the world’s preeminent oncology meeting.

The goal was to capture the essence of the in-person meeting—cutting-edge research, collegiality, and intellectual rigor—and maintain as much of that as possible while getting out the important scientific information and data. While it was clear that the intense networking and quality time together that attendees enjoy wouldn’t be the same in a virtual world, the objective of bringing the community together to disseminate the practice-changing information that can have such an impact on oncology care team members and patients was the same.

And so the scene from the meeting shifted from one where you could stand at “3:55, Sunday afternoon, on the Skybridge, watching everyone coming out of Plenary,” as ASCO vice president of Meeting Services Mandy Davis described her favorite scene from Annual Meeting, to one in which attendees convened online for the ASCO20 Virtual Scientific Program.

Instead of placing ASCO logo decals on the stairs leading into McCormick Place, the staff from ASCO’s various departments created a virtual space where attendees gathered to learn the latest knowledge in the oncology community.

“While COVID-19 has made this a very challenging year, we remain united in our commitment to finding new cancer cures and improving the lives of the patients we serve,” said Howard A. “Skip” Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO, 2019-2020 ASCO president and now chair of the ASCO Board of Directors. “Although the pandemic prevented us from gathering in Chicago, it didn’t stop us from fulfilling our mission of sharing knowledge to accelerate progress for millions of people worldwide living with cancer. It was inspiring to see the oncology community truly united and engaged to help our patients during this pandemic and beyond.”

Record-Breaking Attendance

The oncology community’s deep commitment to knowledge and discovery was borne out in record-breaking attendance: more than 42,700 attendees from 138 countries engaged with the meeting’s content, learning virtually about new clinical advances in every area of cancer research. Throughout the weekend, attendees viewed nearly 5,300 abstracts and more than 100 on-demand and broadcast sessions featuring more than 2,300 oral and poster presentations, Opening and Plenary Sessions, cancer-specific highlights sessions, and Clinical Science Symposia. The line-up also featured a session on cancer care in the time of COVID-19 and an address by Dr. Burris on the theme of this year’s meeting, “Unite and Conquer: Accelerating Progress Together.” Together, this content has been viewed more than 2.5 million times to date.

The virtual meeting drew participants from across the oncology community from around the world representing a wide range of disciplines, including:

  • 40,000 oncology professionals
  • Nearly 2,600 faculty and speakers
  • Nearly 500 patient advocates
  • More than 200 exhibiting health care companies
  • More than 450 news media

Through the virtual meeting platform, participants had the opportunity to network with their peers via a chat function or by scheduling a one-on-one video call. 

“With half of attendees joining from outside the United States, this was truly an international meeting of the minds,” said Dr. Burris. “It is exciting to think how many new connections were made and collaborations were sparked. The next big cancer breakthrough could very well come from one of the virtual conversations that began at this meeting.” 

In addition, Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, raised nearly $1 million for cancer research and its COVID Impacts Cancer Fund and granted more than $8 million to cancer research during the meeting. 

A Robust Conversation on Social Media

With the meeting being 100% digital, social media played an even more important role to facilitate real-time discussions of the presentations. Over the course of the weekend:

  • The official meeting hashtag, #ASCO20, was used in more than 45,000 tweets from more than 8,800 Twitter users.
  • There were more than three-quarters of a billion engagements on social media, including likes, shares, and comments.

As outgoing chair of ASCO’s Social Media Working Group Emil Lou, MD, PhD, FACP, remarked during an Instagram Live discussion on using social media at the Annual Meeting he co-hosted, “ASCO, like many other organizations, is making do; we’re marching on because cancer doesn’t stop.”

As in the past, the meeting had Featured Voices—social media-savvy oncology care team members who can digest the latest science, break it down into digestible quick takes on Twitter for followers, and spot topic trends.

Expert analysis tweet by ASCO featured voice Dr. Maggie Smith

“It’s our responsibility to really figure out how to get the message out, especially when there’s so much misinformation out there and cancer myths and medical myths and how that really plagues the oncology space,” said ASCO Social Media Working Group chair-elect Muhammad Shaalan Beg, MD, MS, during the Instagram Live discussion he co-hosted with Dr. Lou. “We see that with our patients and their family members who ask questions, and the only way to combat that is for us to be present in those channels and spread the word based on what we think the science supports and the direction the field is headed.”

This year there were 25 Featured Voices, more than ever before. This robust lineup represented a wide range of specialties and perspectives, including two patient advocates and one oncology nurse.

“As a Featured Voice at ASCO20, I consider my role as being to help bring the community together on social media platforms,” said Dr. Beg. “I try to contribute to the conversation and help synthesize the scientific data that’s being presented into bite-sized pieces.”

Additionally, four of these Featured Voices provided bilingual tweeting—two each in Portuguese and Spanish. These languages were selected due to their position among the top 10 most used among meeting attendees. “That’s ASCO being perceptive on who their audience really is… and I’m hoping in future years we can represent more segments of the world and different populations and different languages,” said Dr. Beg.

“ASCO is an international organization that comprises over 45,000 oncology professionals around the world; at the same time, English is the official language of the meeting,” noted ASCO Featured Voice Narjust Duma, MD. “We wanted to share content in other languages to expand the reach of the important research that was presented at the first virtual ASCO meeting. Inclusion is essential in cancer research and practice. We hope these tweets in Spanish will reach providers, patients, and caregivers for whom Spanish is the native language. We also want to increase the diversity and inclusion of our oncology workforce, and efforts like this can improve the interest of historically underrepresented groups in medicine to oncology. We are excited to be part of this new initiative. Cancer care para todos!”

World map of ASCO20 hashtag use

New this year were Instagram Live sessions and behind-the-scenes images from followers, including the wide range of individuals associated with the meeting: authors, presenters, ASCO leadership and staff, and attendees.

Four sessions were offered on Instagram Live, hosted by various members of ASCO’s Social Media Working Group and Cancer Communications Committee:

“ASCO’s adoption and use of Instagram has been forward-thinking and innovative,” said Dr. Lou. “The account was started just prior to the 2018 Annual Meeting and immediately gained 1,000 followers during the meeting. Leveraging image- and video-based features, including Instagram Live, has provided unique insight into the day-to-day functions of ASCO and highlighted its activities and members. Now that circumstances have forced our hand and not permitted us to meet in person in Chicago, Instagram is a prime tool to help ASCO and its members amplify connections before, during, and even after the Annual Meeting. As the world watches [ASCO20 Virtual], at the same time we will be able to supplement the conversation with individual ‘takes’ on groundbreaking data and clinical trials from Featured Voices and many others who use this platform.”

Noted Dr. Beg, “The aspect of the Annual Meeting which many of us are going to miss is the interaction and free exchange of ideas.”

While we long for the next time we can gather with 42,000 of our friends and colleagues in the oncology community and walk across the crowded bridge from McCormick Place’s Hall D1 to the Grand Concourse, or slide through the packed groups of people attentively listening to poster authors and trying to get a look at the poster itself, ASCO feels privileged and honored that so many oncology professionals united for the ASCO20 Virtual Scientific Program. Now these discoveries will be taken back to practices, research centers, academic classrooms, and beyond in the continual quest for a world where cancer is prevented or cured and every survivor is healthy.

Tweet by Dr. Don S. Dizon about global collaboration at ASCO20

Learning and Engagement Continues

“We could not have conducted this virtual meeting without the hard work, creativity and dedication of our incredible group of staff and volunteers,” said Dr. Burris. “We are grateful for their unwavering commitment to helping us disseminate evidence-based information for the benefit of the entire oncology community and patients, even in the midst of a global pandemic.”

Although the ASCO20 Virtual Scientific Program has ended, the opportunity to learn, discover, and engage continues, with content available on demand and a second program scheduled for August 2020.

Watch now: All sessions and presentations from the ASCO20 Virtual Scientific Program are available to watch on demand through November 30, 2020. To access content, you must register; fees are waived for ASCO members and discounted for nonmembers. Register and log in to watch Plenary Session presentations, a special session on COVID-19 and cancer, an inspiring lecture by guest speaker Dr. David Fajgenbaum, and more.

Save the date: The ASCO20 Virtual Education Program will take place on August 8-10, 2020. Registration is open; everyone who registered for the ASCO20 Virtual Scientific Program will have automatic access to the education program.


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