Healthcare conferences are hectic, but getting the most out of them doesn’t have to be exhausting.
Unintentionally, national professional conferences have quite a bit in common with sporting events. Both involve large gatherings of people under one roof, and rely upon a major unifying factor; it’s not hard to draw a crowd of New England Patriots fans and laboratory professionals alike.
They also share another, more disconcerting quality: alienation. While it’s true that some travel with colleagues, family or friends, conferences—like sporting events—tend to be places where you’re all at once surrounded and on your own.
On the bright side, however, conferences can be wonderful opportunities to establish professional relationships that bear fruit down the road, earn continuing education units (CEUs), and explore places you’ve never been before.
ADVANCE recently spoke with a handful of conference veterans—including attendees, presenters and organizers—about how best to budget and make the most of your time without burning out.
Network, Network, Network
Susie Zanto, MPH, MLS (ASCP)CM, past-president of the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS), put it very succinctly: for first-time attendees, national healthcare conferences can be intimidating.
“At my first national conference, I was very intimidated,” recalled Zanto. “I sat by myself, I attended lots of CEU sessions, I worried about eating lunch alone. But as I started to attend more of these conferences and got a little braver, I would find somebody who also looked like a deer in the headlights. I’d check out their nametag, find out what state they were from, and introduce myself. I’d ask if they had somebody to go to lunch with, and that’s what started to give me the confidence to go out and network at these conferences.”
Echoing Zanto’s endorsement of networking at lunch was Caroline Kling, MA, CF-SLP, from Advanced Therapy of America in Iselin, N.J. Kling also shared a poster presentation of her research at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s (ASHA) 2015 convention in Denver, and said the ability to meet one-on-one—both as a presenter and with others who were presenting—was a great way to branch out.
“I really liked being a presenter and having that poster session,” Kling said. “It allowed me to interact with a lot of different types of people, and I found that going through other people’s posters and their presentations, I was able to network a lot during that too. If I had only stuck to the (CEU session) speakers, there wasn’t as much interaction. It was kind of what you made of it, but I mostly found that networking was pretty easy.”
Following the same train of thought as Kling—with regard to networking at these conferences being what you make of it—is Kassia Lana, a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) student at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., who attended the American Physical Therapy Association’s National Student Conclave (NSC) in Omaha, Neb. in Oct. 2015. She was especially complimentary of the NSC’s intentional efforts to promote networking through social media.
“The organizers of the conference did an excellent job of promoting networking and interaction before, during and after the conference through the use of social media and the NSC app,” Lana said. “I believe that the easiest way to interact with other students and professionals is during educational sessions and mingling with students, professors and those in practice in the exhibit hall. There were no poster presentations during the NSC.”
When it comes to prioritizing your time, Zanto stressed that attendees remember why they’re at the conference—to network with (many) other professionals in their field.
“As I’ve gotten to know more people in my field, I feel that networking is by far the most important reason to go to one of these meetings,” she said. “The CEUs are great and they’re available for you, but I think the best thing that you can do is network. And that’s what we’ve been trying to tell people for our conferences. They’ll say, ‘I can get all my CEUs online; why do we even need to go to a conference?’ And I tell them that the conference is the one chance you really have to network. I would say that greater than half of my time now is spent on networking—not on going to CEUs.”
Tailor Your CEUs and Do Your Homework
In terms of the educational component of attending a conference, the sheer number of options can be overwhelming. That being said, there is still great value in choosing the right ones and learning things you can immediately implement into your scope of practice when you return home.
Kling finds sessions that emphasize concision and clarity are particularly helpful. “A lot of the presentations offered really great, applicable strategies that you could go home and use right away,” she said. “Without investing in a lot of materials, a lot of the session presenters made it very easy to take their approaches home and carry them over into your practice.”
Zanto, meanwhile, spoke to the instance in which she met Lucia Berte, an expert in quality management systems (QMS). “She basically wrote the Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute (CLSI) Guidelines for setting up a quality management system,” Zanto said. “I had the opportunity to go to one of her sessions and learn, and then had the opportunity to bring her to Montana to do some continuing education lectures. My workplace bought all those guidelines, and we started implementing them in our laboratory to make it more efficient.”
Lastly, when it comes to the incidental parts of attending a professional conference, there is widespread agreement that carving out a little time to enjoy the city and setting is essential, with the only disagreement over when is the best time to do so.
“My classmates and I were able to explore the host city in the evenings after we attended the conference,” said Lana. “It was a marvelous opportunity to get to learn more about the culture, entertainment, and different foods the city had to offer. My advice for future attendees would be to plan on leaving some time after the conference is over, so they can explore the area at a more leisurely pace and relax before traveling home.”
Zanto, on the other hand, recommended possibly coming in a day early and closely reading all the pre-registration information provided by the conference and professional organization.
As for logistics and preparation, Kling said she’d make sure to never forget comfortable shoes again. “It’s a lot of standing and walking around,” she said. “And it’s nice to be professional, but you also still want to be comfortable.”
Zanto, meanwhile, has learned that beyond the essentials such as a phone and charger, wallet and medications, it’s important not to over-pack—especially when it comes to shoes. “My biggest thing is, ‘you don’t need that many pairs of shoes, Susie.’”
So perhaps conferences are a little draining, even under the best of circumstances. But with the right approach, going home can feel just as satisfying as walking out of the stadium with a win.