Acquiring knowledge, experience, and continuing education is a lifelong process for health care professionals. With the constant implementation of new technologies, there have been dramatic changes in the practice of laboratory medicine in recent years, and it is crucial that workers maintain competencies and continue to implement and follow new best practices. Professional conferences are crucial to the development of health care professions in that they offer unique opportunities to stay current in any discipline’s latest advancements.
Unfortunately, attendance numbers at professional development conferences in the United States have been declining in recent years, which could jeopardize the formation of new leaders in clinical departments. This is a trend felt acutely in the laboratory. Thus, it is important to be aware of what motivates professional conference attendance and how best to get what you need for your staff members.
Conferences and trade expositions provide health care professionals with opportunities to develop new skills, collaborate with colleagues, and gain knowledge of cutting-edge advances. A 2017 study indicated that of 100 attendees polled at a scientific trade conference, 56% reported learning of new techniques that could be utilized in their work, 64% reported gaining new skills, and 70% reported gaining novel ideas that could assist with their work (see FIGURE 1).1
Another relevant study was conducted at the University of Michigan in 2020,2 where researchers found that post-conference questionnaire scores for knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors pertaining to the conference subject matter significantly higher compared with the pre-conference questionnaire scores. Post-conference scores covering communication, decision-making, continuity of care, emotional support for the patient/family, symptom management, and emotional support for staff also indicated a significant statistical difference when compared to pre-conference scores. Collectively, this implies that conference participation aids clinicians in providing more effective care.
Value of Networking
In addition to acquiring practical skills, perhaps the most discussed benefit associated with conference participation is the ability to network. Networking and collaboration can lead to significant advances in one’s profession. The first study mentioned above reported 91% of conference participants gained new contacts that improved their work, 64% obtained new ideas or contacts for future publication, 39% acquired new ideas, contacts, or lessons that led to grant proposals, and 36% created contacts that led to funding for their work (see FIGURE 2).1
The importance of networking is reinforced in another article where three graduate students describe their experience with networking while delivering a presentation at a scientific conference. The authors explain how being able to meet and interact with a broader array of health education professionals outside the academia setting helped them become more aware of the extent and depth of their profession, while at the same time allowing them to explore a variety of professional opportunities.3
While networking is one of the greatest benefits of professional conferences, such opportunities have been greatly reduced by recent decreases in attendance. There are many obstacles to conference attendance, such as affordability, resource and time restrictions, lack of interest, and inaccessibility (notwithstanding the impact of the pandemic). This poses a significant issue, particularly for regional conferences, which may provide specific benefits, such as greater affordability and accessibility. Regional conferences also may be more effective in creating long-term networking relationships due to physical proximity.
Turning Around Declining Attendance
A 2016 study4 indicated the primary reasons for conference attendance were attendees’ “specific role in the conference” (43.5%), the location (29%), and the ability to be reimbursed by their institution, (15%). The study also indicated that there has been a significant decrease in state budgets designated for providing students and faculty with assistance to participate in conferences, with 47 states reducing funding to higher education for this purpose between 2008 and 2015.
In the same study’s questions regarding budgets for conferences, 49.3% of respondents reported a decline in their university’s travel budget, 44% reported that the travel budget had remained the same, and only 6.7% reported an increase in their university’s travel funding (see Figure 3).4
As a result, many conference organizers have been working to combat decreases in attendance and travel budgets. Driven in large part to social distancing requirements and travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual and hybrid conferences have become an increasingly utilized option over the last few years. A study conducted in 20205 aimed to identify factors of importance and create a guide to increase the success of virtual and hybrid conferences. The study results initially identified 5 objectives that would lead to an efficient virtual/hybrid conference setting:
Understanding that virtual conferences have drawbacks—especially in creating opportunities to network and learn hands-on skills and techniques—and that there is a need to increase conference attendance, the study researchers incorporated the previously described 5 objectives to create a conference seeking increased participation of early career professionals (usually underrepresented), access to subject-matter experts who infrequently attend meetings, and a system that enables interaction between remote and in-person attendees.5
Fueling Conference Interest and Attendance
To achieve the 5 previously described objectives, conference organizers need to utilize several different platforms that facilitate the streaming of presentations, skill-set training and engagement, and marketing. It is also important to request location and experience information from the remote participants during registration, which enables organizers to set up smaller virtual communities (VCs). These VCs should be inclusive of several laboratory disciplines, locations, and career stages, giving remote participants access to a variety of conference members. More important, it is suggested that remote participants who hail from a proximate location organize local communities (LCs), which would encourage any remote participants tuning in from the same physical locales to meet in person, where allowable. For each of the VCs and LCs, a moderator should be identified to allow for proper training on how to use and troubleshoot the different platforms. Common platforms include Zoom, Twitter, and Slack, which are well-known in academic circles and can be easily modified based on target audience.
Limitations also exist with the virtual/hybrid conference model. For example, in the same study,5 connecting the in-person participants with the virtual participants was only moderately successful. Also, only about one-third of the in-person participants surveyed reported interacting with the virtual participants. Another statistic worth noting is that virtual participants that were members of VCs had much more interaction with in-person participants when compared to virtual participants that attended the conference alone, with organizers reporting that only 18.2% of virtual participants who were not part of VCs interacted with in-person attendees. Therefore, although there was a strong attendance at the conference, there was also a clear decrease in participation by online participants, which needs to be further addressed so virtual trade show participants can gain the same benefits as in-person attendees.
These drawbacks aside, virtual/hybrid conferences have been quite successful in providing a more affordable option to full in-person conferences and encouraging involvement of students and participants that have recently entered the workforce.
Another tactic to help boost attendance at regional laboratory conferences is to encourage members of your organization to participate in the coordination of the conference. As previously mentioned, the main reason people attend conferences is to fulfill their “specific role in the conference.” Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that increasing the number of organization members that are involved in producing conferences will also increase attendance. One suggestion is for membership organizations to reach out more to students and recent graduate workers for assistance in coordinating and managing the conference experience.
Professional development conferences are an exceptional and quite effective approach to providing opportunities for career growth, for participants to keep up with trends in their specific area of activity, and to “rejuvenate oneself professionally.”6 Conferences provide participants with networking, mentorship, and educational opportunities that, if well utilized, can greatly enrich the personal and professional lives of lab leaders and staff.
Unfortunately, there is a clear trend in which regional conferences are being disproportionately affected by a significant reduction in attendance compared to national conferences. This is extremely detrimental, especially to young professionals, who can benefit the most from conference-related networking and education opportunities, and which are often necessary for creating a capable workforce. We encourage you to continue supporting the professional conferences germane to your area of laboratory medicine.
Joao Cardoso, MS, MLS, is a graduate student at Idaho State University, finishing his master’s degree in medical laboratory science. He graduated from the College of Idaho with a bachelor’s degree in health science and is currently working as a laboratory generalist at Banner Desert Medical Center in Arizona.
Rachel Hulse, EdD, MLS(ASCP)CM, has been the program director for the Idaho State University Medical Laboratory Science Program for the past 7 years. She specializes in molecular diagnostics and immunology.