The news last autumn was grim for many medical meetings with a large international component. U.S.-based meeting planners found their overseas attendees and exhibitors dropping out faster than English majors from a high-level chemistry course. Even the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology, whose 43rd annual scientific meeting in San Francisco in early November 2001 pulled in 1,375 international participants from 55 foreign countries out of a total attendance of 10,115, experienced “a notable drop-off in attendance from some international participants,” says ASTRO executive director Frank Malouff. “Japanese attendees were especially nervous about coming to the U.S. Whether this is due to the September 11 tragedy or to the recession in Japan is unknown.”

Dan Mueller, PhD, vice chancellor, international health, with the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, had groups from China, Italy, and Saudi Arabia scheduled to come to the U.S. for meetings from September to November. All three canceled: the Saudis because their airlines were shut down for almost two weeks, the Chinese and Italians because they were concerned they would be held up in customs.

But that was then. Mueller says all three of his partner groups have rescheduled for 2002, and despite some uncertainty, Malouff feels “confident that we will continue to experience steady growth” for ASTRO's 2002 conference.

Why? Though attendees and exhibitors still have to deal with threats of further terrorist attacks, tougher visa processes, a deepening worldwide recession, and organizational freezes on international travel, medical planners say that global health care collaboration has never been more important. They are determined to continue reaching out to health care professionals worldwide.

“I see the continued realization of personal contacts around the world through international meetings as one of the wisest things we can do,” says Terrance Barkan, CEO of Brussels, Belgium-based European Association Services, which provides international meeting planning services. “It enhances professional knowledge, but also spreads an understanding and appreciation of other cultures, making the world a safer place.”

Through European Eyes

While some U.S. medical organizations continue to put a hold on international travel, Barkan says that the events in the states haven't caused any measurable degree of change for European organizations. “There will always be risks in life, and I think this is acknowledged more in the European perspective than in that of the U.S. There have been terrorist groups operating in Europe for decades, and Europeans are more accustomed to security issues on this level,” he says.

Susan Potton, marketing director, conference services, MediTech Media, Princeton, N.J., adds that the health care industry can benefit greatly from sharing the experiences and best practices in medical treatment and emergency health care from countries for which terrorism has been a long-standing issue.

Ronald Caulk, executive director, American Federation of Nurse Anesthetists, Park Ridge, Ill., agrees with Barkan's assessment. While he did set up a January 2002 cancellation deadline for his June meeting in Helsinki, Finland, “it doesn't look like we'll be canceling. From my personal observation, the events in the U.S. haven't affected international meetings the way they did meetings in the U.S.”

However, Gail Goodenow, director of continuing medical education with Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, did have to cancel the 10th Biennial Allergy Abroad '01 conference, which was scheduled for October 3 to 15 in Istanbul, Turkey. “We didn't think it would be appropriate,” she says, adding that they're working to reschedule the conference for fall 2002.

But what may affect international meetings held outside the U.S. is a drop-off in American attendees. American participants generally are among the top-three groups of attendees for international meetings coordinated by the Chinese Medical Association, based in Beijing.

“The Americans usually come in good numbers even for some seemingly Asia-focused meetings,” says Roman Xu, department director assistant with CMA's Department of Foreign Relations. Though the early-bird registration cutoff was still one month away at press time, Xu says the 5th International Diabetes Federation Western Pacific Region Congress, scheduled for May 2002 in China, has yet to receive any American registrations. “My guess is that [U.S.] attendance may be down, but not significantly so, for the Chinese meeting market.”

Closer Through Crises

“I don't think we'll see any changes in how we work with groups outside the U.S.,” says Caulk. Well, maybe one change: “We probably will be working even more closely together.” Malouff agrees that the current political climate won't dissuade ASTRO from forging international partnerships. However, he says, “It may make some foreign societies less likely to ask us to participate.”

Despite his anticipation for a reduced U.S. attendance at the diabetes congress this spring, Xu says that CMA has not changed its strategic plans for international medical projects. “We are currently working with Harvard Medical International to further develop possible joint projects,” he says.

HMI senior staff visited CMA recently and both sides expressed their strong interests in keeping the momentum of their collaboration going despite the September 11 attacks, he says. “I think the attacks make international medical collaboration even more important.”

Some planners are encouraging increased interactions. In December, Mueller and Goodenow traveled to northern Italy to give presentations at a conference hosted by Santo Maria Nuovo, a regional hospital authority that is undergoing a new nuclear medicine effort. Goodenow led a workshop for doctors about how to plan CME.

“It went over great. They were really glad to see us come. They said, ‘Well, if you'll travel over here, I guess it's OK for me to travel there,’” says Goodenow. Several of the Italian physicians are planning to attend Washington University's CME programs, and Goodenow says her organization is developing a program with them in Italy. “That's all moving forward, 100 percent. No fear.”

Mueller also is revving up his relationship-building travel: He usually takes one or two trips per quarter, but he has four scheduled for the first quarter of 2002. “We feel we can bring some value to foreign countries,” says Mueller. “Health care is a worldwide concern: Healthy people do healthy things — maybe decide to have a government that is representative of the people, or develop a better system for handling their indigent population. That's difficult to do if everyone's weak or sick.” Goodenow, Mueller's colleague at the university, adds that forming partnerships with foreign medical schools to promote global health is “a strategic goal of our university, and we will not let anything interfere with achieving this goal.”

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