The Reston, Va.-based American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine has a mission to improve the lives of those with disabling conditions through interdisciplinary research. The interdisciplinary focus is what makes the organization's annual conference unique -- and also a challenge, as the ACRM aims to reach rehabilitation researchers, providers, clinicians and administrators from more than 60 countries and covering nearly 30 areas of specialization.
Despite the inherent complexities, ACRM's annual Progress in Rehabilitation Research conference has grown exponentially, from approximately 171 attendees six years ago to more than 2,500 expected to take part in this year's event. "We are creating something that has never existed before," says ACRM CEO Jon Lindberg. "There has never been a global organization for rehabilitation research."
Before launching the PIRR conference six years ago, the organization faced a quandary. "We had all of these different diagnostics and different job titles we needed to gather," says Lindberg, "and we're global in reach, 65 countries. And we didn't have a penny to market. How would we go about trying to identify and pull in all of the people who were going to fit into the visionary group we were in the process of creating? The answer for us was social media."
Lindberg and the ACRM team set up various special-interest groups, such as for brain injuries, strokes and spinal-cord injuries. "And each time we'd set up a group, we would create conference content from our medical journal, a Facebook page and LinkedIn accounts, and we'd use Google and Facebook and LinkedIn ads to try to find the right people around the world. In doing that, we've been able to build up a database of from zero to more than 30,000."
The ACRM essentially has used social media to structure its conference community. Once targeted attendees were assigned to the appropriate groups, the organization cultivated relationships via those same online channels, primarily Facebook and LinkedIn, to share information and engage attendees between events. Rather than simply using social media as a way to nurture a community, the ACRM used it to build that community from scratch. "Our amazing growth has really been driven by this strategy," says Lindberg.
"Everyone says they want innovation at medical meetings," says Ellen Shortill, director of convention and meetings for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Rockville, Md., "and yet, such meetings are the most resistant to change of any I've ever done in my life." Shortill made that point at a "Future of Medical Meetings" session this past January at the Professional Convention Management Association's conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, and she received applause from a roomful of medical-meetings stakeholders.
Ellen Shortill, Director
Convention and Meetings,
One of the factors hampering progress is that many associations in this highly specialized segment discourage the use of social media during meetings, a frustrating if understandable stance in a profession rife with myriad industry- and government-mandated rules, restrictions and proprietary concerns. A case in point is recalled by Berlin-based digital health-care consultant Len Starnes, who spent nearly 20 years in marketing for big pharmaceutical companies. A few years back he created a hashtag for a European medical society's meeting because they hadn't established one. "When I reached out and told them, they said, 'How dare you? Only the medical board will decide if and when and how and who will use the Internet to cover the conference.' And I thought, 'You have no idea what's happening out there, do you?'"
What's actually happening, says Starnes, is that doctors in some fields have very much embraced social media as a means of communication and education, and many societies and associations are awkwardly trying to keep pace. When one medical conference attempted to ban tweeting from presentations last year, the attendees replied with a resounding, "'You've got to be kidding.' They just ignored the ban," says Starnes. "And afterward, the organizers were picked to shreds. They were laughed at."
These incidents shed light on a core tenet of modern technology -- the democracy of information -- and how often that is at odds with traditional organizations. "They still think that they control access to medical-specialty information," observes Starnes. "They really believe that it's their domain. That's why they have real problems with using the Internet and social media -- they lose that position they've always enjoyed. It's a deep-rooted problem."
Freeing the content
Since becoming an independent consultant several years ago, Starnes has made waves with his critiques of traditional business models (one example: "The Medical Conference Is Dead, Long Live the Medical Conference," a slide presentation that looked at the impact of social media and digital technology).
Digital Health-Care Consultant
"The classic medical-society conference is deeply conservative," Starnes says. "They've been doing these conferences for almost 100 years and they haven't changed much."
The most visible, obvious reaction to this problem is the FOAM movement, otherwise known as Free Open-Access "Meducation." It's a community and growing trove of medical education resources that can be publicly accessed anywhere and anytime. The FOAM movement's popularity is particularly strong among emergency medicine and critical-care physicians, who regularly share articles and research, and participate in discussions on public social media channels. While the movement is platform-independent, one need only to look at Twitter to see its impact: The #FOAMed hashtag, which didn't exist until June 2012, was used in nearly 900 million Twitter posts in 2014.
As the FOAM movement disrupts the traditional peer-reviewed medical journal process, its implications for medical education and meetings are likely to grow in significance over the coming years. Not only are more medical practitioners using social media as a result of the movement's burgeoning popularity, but the open-access ethos is a direct attack on the traditional medical-society model.
The changing attitudes about medical education and information underscore a real conflict for medical societies, affirms Dr. Steven E. Aks, an emergency physician and medical toxicologist affiliated with Chicago's Cook County Hospital. Aks serves on the board of the American College of Medical Toxicology and also has become an active participant in the FOAM movement. "In general, societies view education as a member benefit, and they want to be the exclusive source of that," he notes. "If it gets outside of their firewall, they lose control of it. And I do think that the FOAM movement is threatening to the societies in that sense."
Aks acknowledges that the lack of peer review and formal processes can be a problem with the FOAM movement, and reading information critically and considering its source is more crucial than ever. By the same token, attempting to muzzle those sources would be pointless, he adds. "It's better to have open access and share the knowledge than to contain it," he says. "And the societies, if they want to survive in this changing environment, have to come up with better content that needs to be delivered on-site in a creative way. So it's really putting new challenges to the specialty societies to up their game as well."