In March 2020, much of life came to a standstill with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the radiology residents of the Russell H. Morgan Department of Radiology and Radiological Science, the sudden onset of social distancing meant a rapid change to a big part of life — the daily morning conference. “The morning conference is an essential aspect of our training,” explained Sahar Soleimani, a fourth-year radiology resident and one of three chief residents for the 2022–23 year. Morning conferences are a consistent element in residents’ schedules. Held Monday through Friday mornings, the 90-minute conferences include lectures given by a faculty member or guest speakers. During the gatherings, residents learn from a variety of clinicians and researchers both within and from outside of Johns Hopkins. It’s an opportunity to interact by asking questions and discussing new ideas, triumphs and challenges, with experts, mentors, and peers. The time also includes on-the-spot case conferences to challenge residents’ ability to act quickly and effectively. Residents are given real-world cases and images to discuss, which assesses the residents’ abilities and offers new information.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, the conferences were held in person at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Each weekday morning, residents would have the chance to gather face to face, to ask questions and to engage in discussions and case studies with faculty mentors and one another. That routine was disrupted with the COVID-19 pandemic. Undaunted, faculty and residents quickly established a virtual morning conference space on the Zoom platform. In just a matter of weeks, the enterprise moved entirely online.
Despite the necessarily rapid transition to virtual meetings, faculty and residents quickly embraced new technologies and new ways of teaching and learning. “It was very impressive to see how everyone, faculty and residents, came together quickly to figure out a new way of doing things,” Soleimani said. “The transition, though sudden, was as smooth as we could have hoped,” she added. “The faculty were really amazing at stepping up, as were the residents.” Aggie Boron started as an internal medicine resident with Johns Hopkins in the midst of the pandemic — July 2020. Though it had been less than four months since the sudden shift away from face-to-face morning conferences, Boron found the virtual option as supportive and educational as she had hoped. She even saw the bright side in meeting remotely. Virtual gatherings, Boron noted, allowed for a wider variety of guest lecturers, as they did not need to navigate the logistics of bringing an in-person speaker on to the campus.
And the connectivity of the Johns Hopkins campus via Zoom means that colleagues are rarely more than a quick email or message away. For her part, Boron also felt incredibly well-protected — both for herself and her patients — during the pandemic. She credits Johns Hopkins and the radiology department for implementing rigorous safety measures, including virtual gatherings, masking requirements, social distancing and limiting the number of people in reading rooms. For more than two years, morning conferences remained virtual as COVID-19 and its variants made gathering in person unsafe. Each time case numbers started to decline and a return to in-person learning was discussed, it seemed a new variant would lead to a spike in cases once more. Finally, with cases and restrictions easing, as of July 1, 2022, residents began meeting in person for the first time in over two years.
For Boron, it was an odd but welcome feeling to gather together in person for the first time in her residency. It is a feeling that she quickly grew to love. Now a third-year resident, Boron serves as the diagnostic radiology residency program’s lecture curriculum ambassador. In this role, she creates the morning conference schedule and serves as a liaison between residents and faculty/guest speakers. She has been an important part of the transition back to inperson conferences. This has included managing logistics, scheduling speakers, sharing information and encouraging colleagues to attend inperson gatherings.
The return to face-to-face meetings, according to Boron, has been well received so far. “Faculty are excited to present face to face again,” she said. “And residents are glad to be back.” “Some elements are lost in a virtual setting,” Boron continued, specifically that people tend to ask fewer questions and the presenter can’t read audience members’ facial expressions as easily during the lecture. By comparison, in-person presentations tend to allow audience members to feel more comfortable participating. Being able to see participants in the room directly also allows the presenter to note the audience’s reactions and adjust accordingly. Soleimani cited the “bonding experience” of meeting for face-to-face morning conferences as a key part of the residency experience. Residents can learn from one another, as well as form relationships with radiology faculty.
While faculty members are available via email and other virtual options, it can often be an intimidating and impersonal option for residents. Additionally, messages can get lost in the inbox of a busy faculty member who receives hundreds of emails a week. By contrast, in-person gatherings allow residents and faculty to approach one another in person, via pre- and post-meeting conversation as well as question-and-answer sessions during presentations. This more informal time allows for a greater degree of familiarity and respect, enhancing the experience on both sides. Morning conference time is also protected and free from clinical responsibilities for residents. This means that, despite an often hectic schedule for busy residents, there remains time set aside for learning, study and professional connection.
Soleimani noted, “In-person morning conferences are a really great opportunity for faculty and residents to connect in a meaningful way that is not at a workstation.” While in-person conferences are ongoing at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, the virtual option will remain available as needed for remote speakers and residents working from other locations, including Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and Johns Hopkins Medical Imaging sites. “We’re trying our hardest to make everything as in person as possible,” Boron said, while adding that things remain flexible. She concluded, “It is just so great to see everyone face to face again, working together, side by side, to enhance our skills and offer world-class care to our patients.”