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Have international in-person medical meetings had their day?

BMJ 2021; 375 doi: (Published 10 November 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;375:n2345
  1. Richard Smith, chair, UK Health Alliance on Climate Change1,
  2. Viknesh Sounderajah, clinical research fellow, Institute of Global Health Innovation2,
  3. Ara Darzi, codirector, Institute of Global Health Innovation2
  1. 1London, UK
  2. 2Imperial College London, UK
  1. Correspondence to: R Smith richardswsmith{at}, V Sounderajah viknesh.sounderajah08{at}

The pandemic has changed how conferences and meetings are conducted. Richard Smith says that now is the time to change the status quo forever to reduce unnecessary carbon emissions from travel. But Viknesh Sounderajah and Ara Darzi argue that going entirely virtual would lose many of the features that make meetings so valuable

Yes—Richard Smith

Like many organisations, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists was forced to hold its conference virtually this year, and its president, Edward Morris, reports that it was a huge success. Far more people than normal were able to take part: over 3000 people from 85 countries. He wrote, “My main reflection from the Congress was the immense improvement in accessibility.” People from clinics in rural Bangladesh were able to attend, and 94% of delegates said that “they would recommend a virtual RCOG World Congress to a colleague.”1

Crucially, holding the conference virtually saved approximately 3535 tonnes of carbon emissions from international flights alone—equivalent to over 32 million miles travelled in an average car.1 And this calculation doesn’t include savings in emissions from UK travel, venues and accommodation, catering, materials, and waste.

Previous reports have calculated the emissions from air travel by nearly 5000 people at the 2019 annual conference of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (8646 tonnes)2 and the 15 000 people at the American Thoracic Society’s 2006 conference (10 779 tonnes).3 The total carbon footprint of those conferences will be much higher, but even so, the three conferences I’ve described are the equivalent of the annual per capita emissions of about 13 000 people in Bangladesh. (Also note that this is a comparison between consumption in a few days of conferences and the consumption of a country in a whole year.)

A recent editorial, published simultaneously in over 200 health journals, …

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