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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Best Practices Every Medical Conference Should Embrace

(I rarely do a list post, but could not help myself today (blame it on my daily reading of @Cracked…)

I often attend medical conferences and hear about the best practices applied within medicine, but I rarely hear about best practices applied to the medical conference itself.  In a world of often shrinking budgets and limited bandwidth, we must choose carefully which conferences we should attend.  Embracing some of the suggestions below can make an event a must attend inspirational and renewing moment in our lives and careers.

1.     The standing table, lounging chair and the walking meeting

I recently returned from a wonderful roundtable discussion on clinical trials in Indianapolis.  We had great conversations about open data and patient participation.  The only bad part of the meeting was the back pain I began to suffer after sitting for a few hours.  I am among the ever-growing group of people who work at standing desks.  So staying seated is a special kind of agony.  Fortunately, I am also without a modicum of decorum and had access to my huge suitcase, so I made a standing table MacGyver style during the meeting.       

Some conferences already provide standing tables around the back of the room and I say kudos to you!  Health 2.0 is one, but if you know of others please give them a shout out in the comments section.

On the flip side of the coin of attendee comfort is the lounging couch.  As we invite more and more patients to medical conferences it behooves us to remember, many attendees are listening while in pain.  I applaud the all the conferences that offer a cool down or comfort room where attendees can recline.  But sadly, such rooms rarely have access to the content feed of the live sessions that are ongoing.  Medicine X is the first conference I have attended that offered lounging couches to any who needed to rest while taking part in the live event.   It was rather epic to see that level of inclusion.

Another great addition to the conference venue is the walking meeting.  My friend Ted Eytan, MD introduced me to this gem.  Don't feel your conference has to be contained within four walls.  Go "on the lam" in a official capacity and have some of your breakout sessions outside while walking.  It is incredibly refreshing!  

2.     Inviting e-Patient Scholars and Patient Advocates

The ePatient movement is really expanding.  More and more patients are taking a hand in their own medical futures and helping shape health policy.   Their questions during Q&A sessions often change the direction of the conversation of the conference itself. Their keynotes and panel speeches help other attendees to express their own personal health stories.  Many of these patients and advocates have very strong social media profiles and their live-tweeting of events has exposed conference conversations to the wider world.  Look no further than Medicine X to see the enormous potential of e-Patients to spread the content of a conference.  

“But where do I find such e-Patients?” I often hear in response. Well @speakerlink is a great place to start looking for potential attendees and speakers.  Another avenue is participation in online discussion groups on Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn.  The future in medicine is "Patients Included." 

3.     You must list your #hashtag on Symplur

I can talk about the power of twitter to spread your conference message until I am blue in the face, but without analytics to support my point it is only so much hot air.  Thank you Symplur Hashtag project for providing proof of the power of conversations.  For free.  I ask conference managers to please to list their conference hashtag on Symplur.  Symplur will archive those tweets for easy access and provide  analysis of the day.  Your data will add to the ever-greater haul of big data available for analysis to determine trends within healthcare. If you do this prior to your conference it is a great tool for pre-promotion.  (If you wait till the day of the event attendees like myself will often do it for you, but don’t count on that as a back-up plan)  

It is a win/win situation.   Now all those ePatients can tweet and spread the conversation and you have proof of the level of spread.  You just have to focus on how to fund those e-Patient Scholars.

4.     Crowdfunding at the Medical Conference

Hosting a medical conference is expensive.   It is somewhat terrifying to know you have to come with thousands of dollars to make your vision of a conference a reality.  Even a conference run on a bare bones budget will cost about 25K.  Sponsors are great if you can get them (thank you Cerner!) and a well established conference often can.  For the rest of us crowdfunding is a godsend.  I personally have worked with both @medstartr and @Healthtechhatch for crowdunding in the conference world.  We focused the crowdfunding effort on travel and lodging scholarships for e-Patient scholars.  Working in partnership with a non-profit in line with our conference mission was a great help in securing funds.  

But the power of crowdfunding attendance to enable participation in continuing medical education is not limited to conference organizers.   E-Patient scholars and patient advocates should consider this route to cover their participation expenses in health conferences and classes that do not offer sufficient scholarship options.  A proof of concept is our dear friend @AfternoonNapper who has done so much for the role of the patient in the world of medicine.

5.     Traitwise surveys are the way to go.

So how many of you look at that after-conference response survey in your email in box and whoop with joy?  I bet very few of you do, unless it is a @Traitwise survey.   Not only does Traitwise have a pleasing graphic interface and font selection not reminiscent of the early 1990’s, their surveys are fun.  They keep you in the loop and informed on how your response fits into the greater data set of the conference.  And after you complete your conference survey, you can keep going, filling out survey after survey for the good of mankind.  One of my fellow e-Patients did exactly that after the Partnership with Patients conference.  They broke the record for most answers in one session with over a thousand.  (Another reason you should invite e-Patients: We are very giving people.)

6.     Teach attendees how to live-tweet

One of my favorite quotations is probably misattributed to Sen. McCarthy:  “Beware of Artists they mix with all classes of society and are therefore the most dangerous.”  Yeah, artists specialize in mixing it up, but to do that they need a forum. 

Nowadays Twitter is that forum, for artists and everyone else.

If you are running a medical conference for the good of your attendees and the wider world of medicine, you have several goals.  You want to break even.  You want people to have an enjoyable time.  But most of all, you want people to walk away inspired to make this world a better place.  In healthcare, many individuals feel they do not have a voice in policy discussions.  I am not just talking patients here.   I have spoken to a great many doctors and nurses who feel like they have worked to make a better system for 20 years without sufficient progress.  They are discouraged and feel alone.  I challenge all of you conference planners to get them live-tweeting, to help them realize there are hundreds, even thousands who think as they do. 

I have attended two conferences wherein the conference planners designed an entire webinar around teaching attendees how to live-tweet.  One of these events offered a webinar and 1-800 number support to walk attendees through the entire process.  The conference organizer
offered raffle items at the event that attendees who live-tweeted were eligible to win.  So many new twitter voices joined a wider conversation due the efforts of one conference planner. 

Do you want your conference to live beyond the after-conference survey?  Do want your attendees to act upon the content they absorbed?  Then help them tweet; help them discover the voice they always had.

Remember, online the Q&A never has to end and the microphone is accessible to everyone. 


  1. Susannah Fox and I were thinking the same types of thoughts today:

  2. Thanks for putting this list together Regina - going to distribute it widely to the conference organizers I know.

  3. A wonderful summary of simple smarts for medical conference organisers. The standing table and providing a variety of seating is so easy to do, and can provide so much ease for delegates. A superb idea.

  4. Thanks so much for this, Regina! I've often said that some day, we'll look back on medical conferences that don't do the things on your list and marvel at how archaic they seemed . . .

    1. You are correct! We only get better by trying new things and listening to each other :)

  5. Thx R. I've sent this onto people at the Lown Institute in advance of next month's From Affordable Care to Right Care conference.

  6. Regina,

    I am encouraging the APA to explore this list. I am especially fond of the live-tweeting piece. It's a powerful way to experience a conference. I love doing it, and I really enjoy teaching other healthcare professionals how to get rolling. I'm also grateful to folks who live-tweet the many interesting conferences I can't attend.

  7. Enthusiastic "yes" to all of this, especially #2, #3, & #6. Those of us who are social media savvy will need to teach/train newcomers to Twitter. I've long been an advocate for including training sessions (and setting up a Help Desk/Table/Standing Desk!) as a matter of best practice routine. Corollary rant: No more conferences where WiFi isn't included as part of venue's standard package.

    With apologies for adding to length, I also want to underscore my (yes! me, me, me) latest heartache relative to #2. There are quite a few of us who have not, for a variety of reasons, positioned ourselves as ambassador-educators about our conditions/disease/illness, but nevertheless have a lot to say about how to communicate with patients. Within this group (me, me, me and those like me) are communications professionals who have a lot to offer about the practicalities of developing and curating content.

    I am one of these types -- someone with a long-time chronic illness who has not made it a primary professional identity AND someone who has a lot to say (based on training and experience) about healthcare education.

    Other than finding hashtags and jumping into conversations, I have no clue how to participate in a more dynamic way onsite. Not feeling excluded per se, just mystified about how to get more involved.

  8. Thank you for some ideas I hadn't considered before. As the organizers of @QualitySummit, we work hard to include patients, but you've given us some great ideas to take our conference to the next level for all of our attendees. We have already planned to have comfortable lounge areas and private rest spots, but the standing table hadn't even hit our radar. And I'm checking out Traitwise right now. Brilliant! Off to add to our plans...