‘Get Out’ Takes on New Meaning at CHEST Annual Meeting

Author: David McMillin       


A participant at the American College of Chest Physicians’ CHEST Annual Meeting 2019 runs a probe over an “alien” with magnets in its chest in order to view ultrasound images revealing a cardiac condition. The exercise was part of an escape room at the event.

This case study is part of Convene‘s April CMP Series story looking at innovations in scientific and medical meetings. 

American College of Chest Physicians, CHEST Annual Meeting 2019
Oct.19–23, 2019New Orleans8,593 attendees; 171 exhibitors

When attendees arrived at the New Orleans Marriott for the opening reception of the CHEST Annual Meeting 2019, some of them desperately wanted to escape — not to leave the kickoff festivities, however.

Approximately 200 of the attendees participated in the first-ever escape room experience designed by the American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST). Escape rooms have soared in popularity as corporations choose them for team-building activities and bachelor parties put them on their daytime agendas, but Chad Jackson, CHEST’s chief innovation officer and vice president of market growth, told Convene that the design was “a lot different from your typical consumer-facing jail or murder-mystery escape room.”

“This was over-the-top fun and engaging and exciting,” said Bill Kelly, M.D., FACP, FCCP, pulmonary, critical care, and sleep physician at Walter Reed Hospital and Uniformed Services University and co-chair of the meeting. “But it started with the need to know some pretty intense medical knowledge and learning objectives.”

That knowledge included the basics of ultrasound imaging, how to read X-rays, interstitial lung disease lessons, and other critical pieces of pathology, but the hands-on learning environments — two identical rooms — felt miles away from a breakout session in a ballroom. The team behind the escape room concept took cues from some recognizable science-fiction and fantasy movies, although names and logos were omitted to avoid the potential challenges of licensing fees.

Attendees were grouped into teams of six to eight individuals. After entering the room, they answered questions about pulmonary function testing on a spaceship-style control panel. As they solved those questions, they flipped switches on the panel for a color-matching sequence that unlocked other areas of the room. In one corner, a voice from a fake open chest cavity murmured, “The key is in me.” Attendees had to search through the “guts” for a physical key that could open the arms on a robotic character to reveal the overarching goal of the room: a vaccine.

Seeing the vaccine, though, did not indicate a pathway to escaping. In another area, attendees reached inside a large biohazard box to drive a drone camera past pictures that featured histopathological slides of different illnesses. Another area featured an “alien” with magnets inside its
chest. After running a probe over the extraterrestrial being to review ultrasound images, attendees needed to recognize a cardiac condition that required fluid removal. All in all, there were seven different puzzles, which attendees had to solve in 20 minutes. If they were successful, the
vaccine was theirs, and they jumped on a lighted floor that transported them out of the escape room. “People were hungry for it,” Kelly said. “There was a clear excess demand.”

Testing, Testing

Viren Kaul, M.D., attending physician, pulmonary and critical care medicine at Crouse Health and assistant professor of medicine at State University New York Upstate Medical University, planted the initial seed for the escape room in an email in 2018. “It was a little late for that meeting,” Kelly said,“but it was one of those intriguing emails that you save in your inbox forever.”

When preparation began for the 2019 meeting, he was committed to bringing Kaul’s idea — Kaul served as co-chair — to life. Kelly developed the theme, and with the help of Drs. Amy Morris, June Chae, and James Town, he shaped the content of the puzzles. Jackson and two others spent approximately seven weeks building the infrastructure. He called it “a labor of love” that involved nights and weekends of extra work.

Rather than assume the puzzles would work on-site, they flew in some of the organization’s faculty members to the organization’s headquarters outside Chicago to review it before transporting it to New Orleans. From simplifying the control panel to providing goggles that helped balance the brightness of LED lights, the faculty offered suggestions to improve the rooms.

The test run also pointed out the need for some human assistance inside the room. “In escape rooms, people look behind doors and pull things apart,” Jackson said. “So we had a physician crew member and a staff crew member in the rooms to help redirect people.”

Kelly added that the test identified the need to adjust the level of difficulty for a group of medical experts. “You don’t want everyone to get it, but you don’t want to have too many discouraged players,” he said. “And because they’re competing for the best time, there’s some peer comparison theory that gets involved.”

Making Room for a New Room Experience

Attendees will continue competing and comparing at the 2020 meeting in Chicago, but the experience may change. “We’ve discussed the possibility to move it away from the opening reception and make it available on the exhibit hall floor, which would ensure that thousands [of attendees] could do it during the week of our meeting,” Jackson said. “There are pros and cons to both. There is an element of exclusivity for those who got to do it during the opening reception.”

Regardless of how many people do get to participate at this year’s meeting, the puzzles will be different. Kelly was hesitant to share many details — the magic of an escape room experience, after all, is to enter with no idea of the solution — but he believes that all of the feedback from the first iteration will lead to greater engagement. “It’s not true of all sci-fi films,” Kelly said, “but this is one case where I think the sequel will be even better than the original.”

And for organizers who want to debut a similar idea for their attendees, Kaul recommends looking through their eyes. “Think about what would be good for the learner,” he said. “It might not necessarily be easy for the production team. Sometimes it could be painful. But in the end, that’s what makes people come out with smiles and makes it all worth it.”

David McMillin is an associate editor at Convene.

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