In March 2021, the Canadian Society of Hospital Pharmacists (CSHP) reimagined what it meant to gather as a community. The COVID-19 pandemic introduced radical changes to the professional association’s longstanding national conference as it moved to a virtual platform. Though this change was born out of necessity, it ushered in welcome innovations – namely, increased accessibility.
Moving the event online meant a departure from over 50 years of tradition, as CSHP has typically held its annual Professional Practice Conference in Toronto, with hundreds of hospital pharmacy professionals in attendance. This year’s event was the Society’s first-ever virtual conference. Rather than gathering in a hotel, attendees participated from wherever they’d spent the lockdowns, on their couches, at their kitchen tables and even from workplaces, all across Canada.
Despite the miles physically separating attendees, CSHP titled the event Together: Canada’s Hospital Pharmacy Conference. “’Togetherness’ is really what professional associations like us are all about,” says Zack Dumont, President of CSHP. “Even though we were innovating the conference format, we wanted attendees to feel supported and connected, the way they normally would at one of our events.”
The conference ultimately drew over 800 attendees, the highest registration numbers CSHP’s national conference had seen in a decade. “The response exceeded what we thought was possible,” says Christina Adams, Chief Pharmacy Officer of CSHP. “It goes to show that during this crisis, there was a huge need for us to gather and support one another however we could.”
That response is also a clear sign that virtual events have substantial benefits to offer, even beyond their utility during the pandemic. CSHP’s CEO Jody Ciufo reflects, “We learned this year that virtual conferences are powerful tools to reimagine and to democratize the conference experience.” Organizers and participants agree that increased accessibility was a major benefit of the Together Conference.
Eliminating the need to travel across the country, let alone leave home, results in both financial savings and greater flexibility for attendees. With the highest rates of attendance by province coming from both Ontario and Alberta, the Together Conference attracted a more representative national audience than an in-person conference might, given the prohibitive cost of cross-country travel.
From an ecological perspective, too, gathering without flying is a boon: Air travel is a major contributor to carbon emissions. With the climate crisis becoming an increasingly urgent consideration, virtual or hybrid models of conferences will likely be a valuable option in the future. As we emerge from this pandemic, climate change will continue to pose its own public health threat, and as healthcare professionals, our sector has a responsibility to conduct our work in a sustainable manner.
Tailoring a conference to the needs of frontline workers during a pandemic introduced its own challenges and opportunities, as flexible scheduling was an important consideration for hospital pharmacy professionals working long hours. By recording the conference sessions and making them available on-demand, attendees could access a wide array of educational content at their convenience. Some attendees tuned in from hospital breakrooms, while others watched recorded keynotes at home. On-demand sessions maximized the value of the conference while minimizing disruption to attendees’ work.
With school closures in many provinces, studies have shown that on average, women are disproportionately carrying the increased demands of childcare that the pandemic has introduced. By offering greater flexibility in conference participation, virtual formats might be one way of addressing structural and systemic barriers that prevent caregivers – and certain groups of caregivers in particular –from accessing career opportunities like educational sessions and networking. Even after the pandemic, the flexibility of virtual platforms could lessen barriers to conference attendance, not only from the perspective of cost but also taking into account factors such as family, gender, and equity.
The combination of accessibility, flexibility, and quality programming drew an enthusiastic response from conference attendees. “This was one of the best conferences I’ve attended, and I didn’t even have to leave my house!” said one anonymous survey respondent. The Together Conference offers a model for other professional associations to replicate as we continue to reckon with the pandemic and to strive for greater equity and sustainability in our professions. CSHP will be hosting another virtual conference in 2022, and members receive discounted conference rates. To join or renew your membership with CSHP, visit our website!