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Elna Saah, MD

For science fiction enthusiasts, I recall the children’s sitcom from 2004, “Phil of the Future.” The plot was a 2021 time machine breakdown in 2004 that made for an uncanny reality that captured its target audience. The pandemic-imposed restrictions have made imaginings of a distant future a very present reality. The world has been thrust into a futuristic existence relative to the year 2000, utilizing internet applications that were a distant dream at the time. Virtual meetings, Zoom events and breakout sessions have become part of our daily lexicon.

The turn of the millennium is a distant memory, and the year 2021 is right around the corner. The current zeitgeist has made it imperative that we have both flexibility and adaptability, so flex we have. True to its mission, the virtual 62nd ASH Annual Meeting will deliver the same depth and breadth of coverage of all aspects of malignant and nonmalignant hematology, transplantation, and quality for all across the continuum of the hematologist’s career: from budding to seasoned.

For emerging, “reticulocyte stage” hematologists, ASH-a-Palooza returns, kicking off the annual meeting and spreading the much-anticipated content over two days, December 3 and 4, starting each day at 7:00 a.m. Pacific time. Don’t let the format fool you; it will be no less exciting! The planning committee assures us that trainees will still enjoy the valuable nuggets of information they have come to expect and enjoy.

ASH Talks remain the cornerstone of the event and start off the program each day. This year, topics include leadership, and in keeping with the current climate, racial disparities in health care, both presented by subject matter experts. Likewise, the microlearning sessions known as Blood Drops are back this year and will cover classic topics such as ASH award opportunities, career pathways, and wellness, as well as new topics, including health disparities and finding your career. Enjoy the multispeaker panel format with plenty of room to have your questions answered!

Blood Buddies and Blood Buddy Forums will provide ample opportunities for up close and personal interactions with leaders in the field. Hosted in a virtual space where trainees can interact informally with faculty, says one of the organizing chairs Dr. Hetty Carraway, the format will be an interactive Q&A where trainees are encouraged to drive organic conversations in the areas pertinent to them. The organizers anticipate that the Zoom medium will encourage global participation, affording participants the chance to bring up key issues that they might be unable to discuss at their local institutions. This space allows for conversations on the intersection of science and hematology at the personal level, and provides opportunities for networking that many of us neither have nor make time for in our daily lives. This is a highly coveted and protected space for both trainees and faculty, who share their passion, excitement and hope for the future, as well as rich experiences with the next generation of the field. Finally, there will be didactic sessions. There is still some value in this age-old format and topics will cover numerous areas of interest. Prerecorded lectures will be presented at the prescribed times, followed by live Q&As hosted by the panel speakers.

Another highlight is the Special Symposium on Quality — a perfect add-on to ASH-a-Palooza this year. The Committee on Quality is excited to present “Blood, Debt and Tears: Tackling Burnout in Hematology.” This critical topic targets trainees and practitioners at all stages of their careers. The goal is to extend the “half-life” of hematologists by addressing burnout — the greatest threat to career longevity.

“We are really excited to open the session with an introduction to physician burnout by Dr. Shelly Dev,” remarked Dr. Nathan Connell, who explained that Dr. Dev turned her personal experience with burnout into action, further inspiring others to talk about their struggles with burnout and how it affects them, their families, and their patients. “This introduction will frame the presentations by our trainees who will pitch their ideas and receive feedback from a panel of judges. Difficult issues require innovative solutions, so hematology trainees were given an opportunity to present their ‘big idea’ on how to improve clinician and trainee wellbeing,” Dr. Connell continued.

“The top four contestants were selected from a highly competitive pool of 60, charged to come up with innovative and ‘aspirational ideas’ as proposals for combating the burnout epidemic, in an ‘elevator pitch’ style ‘Big Ideas’ format. The winners were selected jointly by members of two ASH working groups: the Working Group from the ASH Trainee Council and the Working Group on Quality,” stated ASH Senior Manager of Clinical Quality Improvement Patrick Irelan. The session is prerecorded, but all are invited to join for a live interactive Q&A session. The ball will then be placed in your court, oh attendees, to vote for the winner. Voting will be open all weekend. Chair of the ASH Committee on Quality and co-chair of this particular session Dr. Lisa Hicks invites both trainees and practitioners alike to attend and actively participate, “…trainees, cheer up your colleagues and faculty, cheer on junior colleagues, get inspired and challenged to think outside the box,” she implored. Together, let’s combat burnout in novel ways and hopefully to extend the half-life of hematologists!

A significant part of ASH education and quality is guideline development — “a light to your path!” Guidelines in my mind are akin to guard rails in practice, providing wisdom for the inculcation of both efficient and fiscally responsible practices. And that is what the ASH Choosing Wisely® Campaign has sought to do! We met up with Dr. Anita Rajasekhar, whose enthusiasm for the initiative is almost palpable, and she shared the vision with us, “The ASH Choosing Wisely® Champions initiative allows us to highlight well-designed and successful quality improvement projects that address overutilization and therefore embody the spirit of Choosing Wisely.” She continued, “This year’s virtual [Choosing Wisely®] session allows for a longer and more in-depth opportunity for the audience to ask specific questions of our champions to help understand the challenges, barriers, and facilitators to conducting a successful stewardship project.” On a final note, the committee in keeping with the vision of the American Board of Internal Medicine, “…hope that by showcasing these Choosing Wisely® Champions’ projects, the audience will be inspired to undertake similar projects at their home institutions to improve the quality of care of patients.” The session will air with a live Q&A on Sunday, December 6, at 12:00 noon Pacific time.

This year’s Education Program has something for everyone! The sessions are almost equally weighted this year, covering malignant and nonmalignant topics of interest, adult and pediatrics, as well as bone marrow transplant. Dr. Hetty Carraway, who chairs the adult clinical malignant hematology session, “Myelodysplastic Syndromes: What We Have and What We Want” (Saturday, December 5, at 9:30 a.m. Pacific time), requests the pleasure of members on this track and encourages all to participate in the live Q&A sessions, thereby fostering interaction and promoting active discussion for everyone’s enrichment. Lastly and certainly not least, the “How-I-Treat” sessions remain a core way for experienced members to share their expertise. There definitely is no need to make mistakes when you can learn from the mistakes of others, and in education and practice, it may be more perilous to take “the road less travelled by.”

About the Author
Dr. Elna Saah is a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at The AFLAC Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders of Children’s HealthCare of Atlanta. She focuses primarily on nonmalignant hematology and sickle cell disease. Dr. Saah is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine. Her clinical interests include transition from pediatric to adult care and chronic pain. Her scientific areas of interest are erythrocyte rheology and multi-omics applications in sickle cell disease.

Originally from Victoria, Cameroon, Dr. Saah attended The University of Nigeria Nsukka College of Medicine, Enugu Campus (home of the “great lions and lionesses!”) She considers herself a Michigander who has been currently transplanted to Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Saah loves to read and travel, especially to destinations where there is water.

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