SAO Executive Council Member Dr Debbie Sema reflects on what went into taking the event online amid the pandemic and what it means for 2021.

By Greg Thompson

The Southern Association of Orthodontists (SAO) recently finished up its virtual event, succeeding in its primary goal to “further the art and science of orthodontics in the southern states.” As a member of the SAO Executive Council, Debbie Sema, DMD, MS, along with Jeri Stull, DMD, MS, and her committee, took the lead in organizing the event for members across four southern states—the second largest constituent region of the American Association of Orthodontists.

With the live meeting originally planned for Nashville, the organizers made the difficult decision to cancel the highly anticipated in-person event about four months ago. “We had to dust ourselves off and get back on our horses,” says Sema, owner of Oxmoor Valley Orthodontics, Birmingham, Ala, with a satellite office in McCalla. “We had planned an amazing live event, so instead we hosted the best virtual meeting we could.”

Partnering with orthodontic sharing and learning platform OrthoScience made for what Sema called “as close to a live meeting as we could get.” OrthoScience is responsible for building Polaris, which Sema describes as the premier orthodontic sharing platform for orthodontists. “Polaris contains a powerful case repository with over 50,000 treated orthodontic cases for study and discussion,” she says.

Virtual attendees at the show were able to “visit” different lecture halls to hear sought-after presenters on the hottest topics. “Attendees could engage with these great speakers and each other during their presentations, just as they would in a live meeting, with questions and comments via live chat,” explains Sema, who is slated to be president of SAO in 2023. “They could stay in the doctor track lectures or sit with a team for great learning and sharing opportunities.”  

Another handy aspect of the now concluded virtual meeting is that the continuing education (CE) will continue to be available until the end of November for on-demand consumption. “Anyone who paid the fee,” Sema reiterates, “has access to all the content.”

In place of hands-on exhibitor booths, SAO and Polaris fashioned a virtual exhibit hall. Exhibitors had their team members “present” so attendees could venture into the hall and check out meeting specials.

“It really was like being at a live meeting in that we could virtually go into the exhibit hall, and if I had a favorite rep, and see that he’s there, I could send a message for live chat,” Sema enthuses. “If I had a friend who might be interested, I could invite someone to join me in the booth, and we could have that conversation.”

Past and Future

With the virtual conference over and optimism high for next year, Sema has had a chance to reflect on her own practice with the idea to implement new ideas gleaned from virtual sessions. In some ways, it’s difficult to plan for the future, particularly if it looks like the recent past.

For many orthodontists, that meant a complete shutdown for about 8 weeks. “And it wasn’t a restful 8 weeks,” Sema quips. “It was full of concern and working constantly to make sure our team and our patients were taken care of. I did virtual appointments almost that entire time, but it’s not the same, especially in orthodontics…When we did get back in the office, I spent considerable money on PPE, upgrades to heating and air units, air purifying free-standing units, and much more.”

With many of those workflow challenges ongoing, and the success of the virtual conference now in the rearview mirror, Sema admits that the regret of losing out on Nashville still stings. As a “big win” for SAO, the Music City locale was the culmination of many years’ work and would have included site visits, live entertainment, and a visit to the country music hall of fame.

As for the goals of networking and developing friendships, priorities changed by necessity. “We missed out on hugs and handshakes,” Sema laments. “We love the face-to-face interaction, and I think that’s going to remain strong in the SAO. We are already so looking forward to our 100th anniversary conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2021.”

Even if the North Carolina show goes on as planned, Sema points out that the virtual experience will likely influence conferences for years to come. She explains: “The virtual aspect is going to change the way meetings are held. We will probably always have a virtual component in the future for those who are not comfortable and don’t want to travel. I know the president-elect for next year is simultaneously planning the virtual component with the live component.” OP

Greg Thompson is a freelance writer for Orthodontic Products.