‘The Hugs Felt More Genuine’ at This In-Person Health-Care Meeting

ACEP COO Bobby Heard on what it took to host a safe and successful meeting for emergency physicians, how partners can better support organizers, and why the hybrid format needs to go away.

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

ACEP21 session

The world’s largest emergency medicine conference, the American College of Emergency Physicians’ Annual Scientific Assembly, convened Oct. 25-28 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. (Courtesy of the American College of Emergency Physicians)

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) convened its scientific assembly Oct. 25-28, 2021 in Boston — the first time the annual event was held in person in nearly two years. While COVID forced the event online in 2020, and it was well received by attendees, the organization — which represents more than 38,000 emergency physicians, emergency medicine residents, and medical students — was strongly in favor of returning to a face-to-face event.

ACEP leaders felt it essential to not only give their members an opportunity to earn their CME and hear from peers on working in emergency health care through the pandemic, but also to reflect and connect over their shared experiences, said Bobby Heard, ACEP COO. Frontline health-care workers, he said, “need that from a therapeutic perspective. [It’s] cathartic to be with their peers to share what they’ve been through, bond over [what they] went through and just talk about the war stories.”

That prompted organizers to create space for this need, by offering small-group settings for conversation and reflection, holding a candlelight vigil for members who passed during the pandemic, as well as providing the opportunity to participate in a Theater of War presentation, an initiative launched in 2020 that uses theater as a way to help deal with trauma.

To do this safely, the ACEP team employed the full spectrum of health and safety protocol, including requiring proof of vaccination, daily health checks, physical distancing, and masking at all times. But Heard knew that taking those extra measures wouldn’t come without challenges, so ACEP enlisted backup by hiring on-site medical staff and extra staffing to help with everything from traffic flow to app support.

ACEP21 Express Check-In

To enter the conference, attendees had to provide their ACEP21 Express Check-In Barcode (which could be stored in Apple Wallet) as well as use the CLEAR Health Pass app to complete a daily health screening and upload their proof of vaccination.

American College of Emergency Physicians’ Annual Scientific Assembly (ACEP21)

Where: Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and online

When: Oct. 25-28

Who: About 4,000 emergency physicians, emergency medicine residents, and medical students in person

Next: ACEP22 Scientific Assembly, Oct. 1-4, San Francisco

In the end, the event was a success. No positive cases were reported and the attendee feedback was “so positive,” Heard said. “The hugs felt more genuine; the smiles bigger, if you could see them under the masks … people were so happy to see each other and reconnect again.”

Heard thinks that their success is proof that face-to-face programs can return under the right conditions. “What I’ve just noticed is, in terms of starting live, face-to-face meetings … medical meetings have been the most skittish,” Heard said. “There’s the sentiment that seems to be out there among a lot of medical groups [that gathering in person is] sending the wrong message to the public. I was just so impressed that our board said, ‘Look, we’ve been the frontline of the pandemic and we want to show people how we can meet safely.’”

Now that the event has concluded, where did Heard see opportunities for improvement? The hybrid format stood out as a particular pain point. ACEP chose to run a digital version of the meeting concurrently and Heard is now of the mind that such an approach is flawed.

“We’ve got to disconnect these — these are two separate meeting products,” Heard said. “This idea that we ought to try to figure out how to live stream or … recreate the experience — it’s really very difficult to do that and technically challenging and extremely expensive.” Instead, Heard thinks that digital and in-person programs should be treated as two completely separate entities to provide the best experience possible for both sets of audiences as well as exhibitors.

ACEP fun

On seeing attendees gather face-to-face again, Bobby Heard, ACEP’s COO, said “the hugs felt more genuine; the smiles bigger, if you could see them under the masks … people were so happy to see each other and reconnect again.”

Here are the five biggest lessons learned from organizing ACEP21 based on Convene’s conversation with Heard.

Manage expectations about attendance. ACEP adopted a “Your Meeting, Your Way” approach for 2021 and saw about one-third of its typical attendance, about 4,000, come in-person — higher than what they had expected. “No. 1, there are some institutions that still have travel bans, believe it or not,” Heard said. He said that funding also is an issue, that practitioners don’t seem to have the same access to financial support for CME as in pre-pandemic years. “Then,” Heard added, “I think there’s probably a segment that really still didn’t feel 100 percent comfortable traveling.”

The hybrid program drew only about 1,200 online attendees, fewer than expected, which Heard attributed to Zoom fatigue.

Take extra steps to communicate health and safety protocols. Even though the ACEP team made it a point to communicate the meeting’s COVID-19 protocol via its website and through e-mail far in advance, they were nervous that attendees would skip over reading those instructions. To make sure this critical information wasn’t lost on registrants, ACEP hired a telemarketing firm to call every single attendee ahead of the meeting to remind them about the vaccine mandate and to download the CLEAR Health Pass app, which was used for vaccination verification and daily health surveys.

The extra outreach was successful — only two attendees showed up unprepared. The team provided them with complimentary access to the digital program so they could tune in from their hotel rooms instead, and they also were given GrubHub gift cards for meals. And for the very small percentage of attendees who felt uncomfortable sharing their biometrics via the CLEAR app, the ACEP team accommodated them through a secondary backup screening on site.

Overstaff any face-to-face program. Heard said having extra staff on hand was key to handling everything from testing to technical issues. The team employed one to three nurses every day to help with on-site screenings and testing for attendees who reported symptoms — thankfully no positive cases were reported — as well as extra staff on the first day to help attendees navigate the app in addition to on-site protocols. This came at an extra expense, so it’s key to budget accordingly, Heard said.

“It takes a lot more staff to do this than you think,” he said. “And you’ve got to have people that are really good on the customer-facing side.”

Plan out traffic flow and checkpoints in advance. Heard underscored the importance of working out traffic flow and checkpoints in advance — a step the team at HIMSS also emphasized was crucial at their 2021 Global Health Conference & Exhibition, held in Las Vegas, Aug. 9-13. And, he said, if venues could figure out those logistics in advance, it would give organizers a huge leg up.

“They could have it all mapped out for us,” said Heard. “Show us how the traffic flow needs to work, [where] to have a health check point or a vaccine checkpoint … the best entrances and exits to use,” and other logistics.

Destination and venue partners: Pay attention — there’s an opportunity here. One of the biggest challenges Heard encountered was sourcing local partners for testing and staffing. If DMOs and other in-destination partners could provide vetted recommendations for these services, he said, or even negotiate special pricing with those providers off the bat, it would take save organizers a lot of time and work.

“That would be a huge help,” Heard said. “Because there is a lot of cost to do all of this. That’s a selling point for groups or at least a confidence-building point that would help [organizers] say, ‘Okay, I can feel good about this.’”

Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor at Convene.

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