Conference themes emerge during networking sessions

Participants want new information

People attend conferences for many reasons. Some come because they like the topics that will be covered, sometimes it is the location; others are attracted by a particular speaker or by the fact that the health care agency or company has a reputation for putting on a quality conference.

"Sometimes, people just want a day for a conference and it is a topic they can use, a good organization, and a reasonable distance. So there are a lot of different aspects that drive people to conferences," says Zeena Engelke, RN, MS, patient education manager for the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison.

Whatever draws them, people won’t label the conference worthwhile unless they walk away with information they did not have before they came that will improve their ability to do their job well. To make sure a conference is valuable, it’s important to select timely topics and find speakers who can address them.

Ideas for topics come from a variety of sources. When putting together nursing education conferences for her health care institution, Virginia Lundquist, RN, MS, staff development director for Willamette Falls Hospital in Oregon City, OR, has conducted educational needs assessments, looked at quality improvement or process improvement reports to identify needs based on incidents or patient complaints, and looked to see what competencies needed to be improved.

"Those are pretty standard ways to identify topics in acute-care hospitals," she says.

Topics for a regional conference sponsored by a networking group for health care educators that Lundquist belongs to were selected in a slightly different manner. Ideas for topics came from the networking portions of the organizations regular meetings.

"As we discuss different projects and types of training that people are doing certain themes will emerge over and over. If several people mention they are having trouble with a particular type of activity or addressing a certain subject, that becomes a heads-up that we need to get more education and training on the topic," says Lundquist.

For example, the experienced educators in the group discussed how shrinking budgets and the impact of managed care was challenging education departments. They expressed a need for being able to communicate to their administrators the effectiveness of their training. As a result of this conversation, members of the conference planning committee sent out e-mails to other educators and people in the business community asking for speakers who worked on projects that measured the value of education.

The committee found a speaker who had developed a system for presenting these measurements. "It worked well for both of us because she needed to bounce her model off people who needed to use it, and we were looking for new ideas, so it was a mutual benefit," says Lindquist.

Brainstorming helpful

Selecting an advisory committee is a good first step to planning a conference, says Sandra Cornett, PhD, RN, director of the OSU/AHEC Health Literacy Program in Office of Health Sciences at The Ohio State University in Columbus.

In this way, committee members first can brainstorm a theme and then pick topics in subcategories that complement the theme. While planning the national conference for the Philadelphia-based Health Care Education Association (HCEA) conference, which was held in Washington, DC, in 2003, the committee selected "Strengthening the Nation" as the theme. Subcategories included technology/ innovations, regulatory/accreditation issues, leadership/management strategies, disparities in health care, training modalities, and research. 

To find speakers to address the topics, committee members did a call for abstracts, sending the list of subcategories and the theme to all members of the organization and others when appropriate asking if they would like to submit an idea for an intensive workshop, concurrent session, or poster presentation. The panel found the keynote speaker itself. 

The committee members discussed possible keynote speakers among themselves and decided on an expert in cultural diversity. Another way to find a keynote speaker is to post a notice on a health care education listserv or contact an appropriate organization, says Cornett. HCEA is in the process of creating a database for members only that lists members’ area of expertise, their speaking fee, and the topics they cover.

Hot topics, as well as those who have expertise in these topics, also can be uncovered by monitoring a listserv in the field of education, notes says. A third way to uncover speakers as well as hot topics is by reading articles and journals. Patient Education Management provides ideas for topics of interest to people in the field and provides a list of experts quoted in the article, therefore being a valuable resource for uncovering conference topics and speakers, says Cornett.

Engelke makes the hospitalwide conference she organizes more of a continuing education affair. While she usually brings in a speaker to address a national trend she also solicits speakers from within her organization.

"Most organizations have certain jewels that are really good speakers or they have projects and practices that others are interested in. If the topic hasn’t been shared within the organization the conference is a good time to share the information," she notes.

For example, the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics has a good interpreter services department. Therefore, Engelke asked the coordinator to give practical tips for using an interpreter within a clinical setting.

She also invited presenters from the rehabilitation and diabetes areas to show devices that make self-care easier and help with patient education.

While there is no magic formula for determining appropriate topics for a conference and finding speakers to address them better results are achieved if a systematic method is used, says Cornett. "It’s important to know ahead of time what you want to do," she says. That is why she likes to choose a theme, then topics that support the theme. From this point, she goes to a listserv and the literature to look for experts on the topics. Word of mouth and a call for abstracts also is a good way to uncover the speakers, she adds.


For more information about uncovering timely topics for educational conferences and speakers to address them, contact:

  • Sandra Cornett, RN, PhD, Director, OSU/AHEC Health Literacy Program, Office of Health Sciences, The Ohio State University, 218 Meiling Hall, 370 W. Ninth Ave., Columbus, OH 43210-1238. Telephone: (614) 292-0716. E-mail:
  • Zeena Engelke, RN, MS, Patient Education Manager, University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, 3330 University Ave., Suite 300, Madison, WI, 53705. Telephone: (608) 263-8734. E-mail:
  • Virginia Lundquist, RN, MS, Staff Development Director, Willamette Falls Hospital, Oregon City, OR. E-mail: