Hosting a UK Patient Reported Outcome Measures (PROMs) Research conference during a pandemic – could it be done?

In 2020 we were all set to host the 5th UK Patient Reported Outcome Measures (PROMs) Research Conference at the University of Sheffield. This national event focuses on researcher-led activities on methodologies around development, testing and use of PROMs in different contexts and settings. Just a couple of months before the conference the Covid-19 global pandemic struck and with the country in a national lockdown we sadly had to postpone the event.

One year on, with the pandemic still in circulation, colleagues on the PROMs scientific organising committee had to decide what to do next – wait and see how things unfolded or keep the momentum going by promoting a new date and going virtual. We agreed to go virtual, having spent a month gathering colleagues’ experiences of attending and/or hosting conferences online during the first national lockdown.

It was a daunting prospect hosting a virtual online conference – would delegates attend, what would they experience, would it generate debate and would the technology work?

We spent months moving everything online, working with our learning technologists to decide on what platform we could use to host the conference, asking some of our speakers to produce films to help enhance the online conference experience. And thinking of practical ways to display research posters and finally hosting a practice session for our speakers and abstract presenters so they could get to grips with the technology and iron out any issues with presenting online. There were a few sleepless nights!

We finally held the conference on the 16th and 17th June 2021 after a one-year delay. The highlight was bringing together over 154 academics, clinicians and PhD students, representing 105 organisations. With the bonus of attracting an international audience, including delegates from the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe, Hong Kong, Jordan and Africa. This would not have happened if the event had been hosted face-to-face.

Our worries on whether an online conference would and could generate the type of debate we were used to at our face-to-face event were allayed when we received feedback from the chair of the parallel session on Methodological Issues in Instrument Development, Dr David Wellsted. He told us that for 10 days after the conference had finished an animated debate had continued amongst delegates on the nature of measurement, suggesting a potential PROMs ‘Hot Topic’ for next year’s UK PROMs conference.

One of the delegates summed up their experience:

“In an online format it was great to have it across 2 days, to enable at least some participation even if people were still juggling other work/home commitments. I was only able to commit half days so missed some sessions, but the single link to the meeting platform was good for joining when I could. The programme was well structured, with a good balance between breakout and main sessions. Also really good that several time slots were allocated for viewing and asking questions about posters (something we should do more of at in-person conferences!)”

We are currently in the process of producing conference proceedings which will be published later in the year.

This blog was written by Amanda Lane, Theme Manager, Health Economics, Evaluation and Equality theme at Yorkshire and Humber ARC.

31 August 2021