Virtual Conferences are Showing What Really Matters Isn’t the Conference At All

In years of attending my health care and technology industry
conferences, – if we’re being honest –  conferences
were a waste of time. There were simply too many conferences with too many
vendor and consultant attendees. COVID-19 has changed all of that. The
in-person conference is, at least for the next couple of years, if not more, a
thing of the past.

Enter the virtual conference. The format of the virtual
conference lends itself to replicating all the least useful parts of an
industry event without any of the elements that redeem them. While the content
of the discussions at the World
Medical Innovation Forum (WMIF) and the Becker’s
Health IT, Clinical Leadership and Pharmacy Conference was some of the best I can remember, they were still
seriously lacking in essential areas. Conference organizers need to look
seriously at what they offer, and how they can enable the more valuable, less
scripted content the healthcare industry needs in a virtual context.

Key Takeaways

The COVID public health emergency has helped
show what is and what is not valuable about these events. Practical discussions
about short term problem solving, less scripted presentations, and a
willingness to be candid are both more interesting and more useful.
It is the conversations and ongoing discussion
that make in-person networking at a good conference so valuable. A mix of
attendees from a variety of organizations and provider settings offers an
invaluable access to a breadth of perspective and expertise that is notably
missing from virtual conferences.
Representatives from small practices and
community hospitals have limited travel and conference budgets, and a serious
lack of free time. Even when attendance is discounted or comped, they can
struggle to attend. Free, one-day virtual conferences are an ideal opportunity
to bring them and their perspectives into larger discussions about the use of
technology in healthcare.
The general focus on large hospitals and health
systems at conferences loses essential perspective from organizations that are
not able or prepared to replicate their successes. An increased emphasis on the
inclusion of small practices and community health resources is needed to keep
advice and recommendations practical.

Real Value in Going Off Script

On May 11 and May 21, the WMIF and Beckers did their best to
keep going in the era of COVID-19, each hosting one-day virtual events in place
of their cancelled conferences. Despite sparse offerings largely (and understandably)
focused on the current health emergency, they managed to be some of the most
interesting, useful panels and presentations I’ve heard from a conference in

A willingness to be relatively impromptu, to discuss things
more current and raw than the usual three-to-five-year transformation
trajectory summed up into 25 minutes of PowerPoint, led to conversations that
were interesting and relevant. Practical and productive topics like how to
implement virtual health platforms, how to manage staff and providers scared of
coming in to work, or guidelines for navigating new waivers, reimbursement and
regulatory structures were a welcome change of pace from the conference norm.

Reflections on how previous disaster and contingency
planning had fallen short were fascinating. The scale and timespan of the
public health emergency have vastly exceeded FEMA trainings, but the emphasis
on dispersed command structures and flexible organizational structures paid off
for organizations that had trained in them. 
Especially notable was the willingness of speakers to not just present
their success stories, but to speak about their failures or did not work out as
planned. As one speaker noted, just reducing mistakes can be enough to make a
difference, without needing to implement new technology or integrate the latest
AI platform.

Attendees Make the Conference

But these virtual conferences still felt sterile. They were,
after all, essentially just a series of videos. Too many traditional
conferences lean on their scripted content as a value offering, with keynotes,
panels, and presentations as the major focus. Virtual conferences lend
themselves to that, reinforcing the worst traits of the in-person events.  A good conference offers that essential thing
we’ll travel and spend for; a chance to have impromptu discussions with peers
or even the speakers after a presentation.

This is especially important given the immense variation in
resources, culture, and preparedness that exists in healthcare. The needs and
challenges in a small primary care practice are very different than a large
multispecialty system, and a local community hospital uses technology and
leverages IT differently than an academic medical center. Too often, the
solutions and technologies presented by large, sophisticated systems and the
vendors they have partnered with are not viable for these smaller practices.

It is the attendees who can and do provide that perspective,
and their role in these two virtual  conferences was sorely missed. After listening
to a long conversation between representatives from the Cleveland Clinic and
Stanford Health, what was needed was the point of view of a floor nurse at a
community hospital or the medical director of a primary care practice. At a
good live conference, those people can be found. At a bad conference, or
currently an excellent virtual one, there is no opportunity to have that

This does not have to be the case. Breakout rooms or
discussion sections could be used to give attendees the chance to talk and
share their thoughts and experiences. It would not be as good as an in-person
conversation, but it would be a vast improvement over the current state we are
experiencing with the plethora of virtual events.

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