Medical conferences convene hundreds, often thousands, of doctors and scientists in one city. But their expertise is seldom heard outside the conference centre. They exchange knowledge and best practice peer-to-peer, using technical language non-experts would find bewildering, in lectures, workshops, panel discussions and poster presentations. The end goal is to improve patient outcomes in the real world.
This is ultimately why these meetings take place, but some see a missed opportunity.
Organisers and host cities are increasingly looking for ways to ensure that local communities gain something tangible when a conference comes to town, by having the chance to tap directly into the enormous wealth of expertise temporarily in their midst.
This is often dressed up in the language of legacy, but the message could equally be one of common courtesy: ‘Thank you for hosting us, in return we’d like to share some of our expertise’. You wouldn’t arrive at a dinner party without a bottle of wine.
When Vienna welcomed 7,000 delegates to the annual congress of the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL) last month, the association and the city’s convention bureau were eager to leave a lasting impact on the Austrian capital.
Together with the host venue, Messe Wein, the Board of Education for Vienna and the Vienna Healthcare Group, they devised a public health campaign called ‘Love your Liver’, to raise awareness of the vital organ amongst school children and the wider public.
Immediately before the congress, EASL organised a public event at the Billrothhaus, in Vienna's ninth district, where experts spoke about liver health. During the congress itself the public were invited to have their liver checked at a screening truck outside the venue, along with a free test for hepatitis C. More than 400 liver screenings and 100 hepatitis C tests were carried out, with those showing abnormalities advised to see their family doctors.
Elsewhere two Viennese hepatologists went into a primary school to give an interactive lesson on the liver. The children created artwork on the theme of the liver, which was exhibited at Messe Wien, and were invited to attend the opening ceremony. Educational material is now being developed that will be used in local schools to raise awareness about liver health.
Ben Hainsworth, EASL executive director, said: "Nowadays when we do a congress we don't just want to speak to the doctors and the nurses and the people who come to the congress, but also speak to the people who live in the city. Lots of people don't really know how important the liver is."
Maraika Geisterfer-Black, advocacy, policy and public health assistant at EASL, added: "This is something that we started last year in London, we continued this year in Vienna, and hope to continue growing across the years through our congresses."
Christian Woronka, head of B2B Management at the Vienna Tourist Board and Director of the Vienna Convention Bureau, explained: "As a convention bureau, we have been looking at how legacy initiatives can be implemented in practice. In doing so, we see our role as matching the vision of international associations with the destination in the best possible way. We are aware that the approach is different for each association. Based on the ideas and visions of the association, we try to bring local partners on board who can concretely support the realization of the impact projects through their network and their area of expertise."
Legacy programmes can be big or small, but a successful citywide initiative will probably need the support of several local stakeholders.
Dr. Michael Binder, chief medical officer of the Vienna Healthcare Group, one of the largest hospital associations and health service providers in Europe with eight hospitals, nine nursing homes and over 30,000 employees, said: “We very much welcome the EASL's aim with its annual congress not only to inform the professional community, but also to create direct added value for the local public. The public events on liver health organized around the congress, the cooperation with a local school or the free liver checks in the screening truck make an important contribution to this.”
Heinrich Himmer, director of the board of education for Vienna, said: "For pupils, it is a great opportunity to experience first-hand how experts from different countries work together on solutions at congresses. The school projects in cooperation with EASL have raised awareness among young people about the importance of a healthy liver and given them new perspectives on research topics and career paths. We are happy about the first successful pilot project and further co-operations with the aim of bringing exciting congress content to Vienna's schools for future generations.”
Hainsworth added: “We wanted the EASL Congress to leave a lasting impact on the scientists who attended but just as importantly, help to educate the broader Vienna public about the importance of liver health – and we did! The exemplary diligence, know-how and hospitality of our Viennese hosts and partners, particularly the Vienna Convention Bureau, the Messe Wien Exhibition & Congress Centre, have made this event an impactful, joyful, and resounding success.”