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Neuro rehab technology

Adventures in online conferencing

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Merryn Dowson, of rehab goal-setting platform Goal Manager, on why the virtual conference should endure long after COVID-19’s limitations are gone.

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, the last year has been a little bit different from previous years and by ‘different’ I, of course, mean ‘online’.

Conferences have been no exception. Instead of arriving at a large hall, picking up the first of the day’s seven coffees and scanning the room for the best pens on offer, we are finishing off our morning routines and setting our out-of-office email only to sit in the same chair and log in to an online virtual conference.

In March we may have hoped that these conferences would actually happen in person and that the world would quickly get back on its axis but we soon realised that this would not be the case.

We were to access it all from our computers, perched wherever we can manage in our homes.

In August, I had my first taste of this unprecedented, socially- distanced, new-normal approach to conferences by logging on to that of the American Psychological Association (APA).

For many, a previously inaccessible conference due to travel and registration fees, this year it was beamed on to my laptop at a comparatively low cost.

Not only that but, unlike at physical conferences, I did not have worry about rushing from room to room, all of my belongings slung over my arm (including a tote bag of the aforementioned pens), hoping to make it on time to the next talk I had circled in the programme.

I was able to click freely between ‘rooms’, catching the end of the talks while the kettle boiled in anticipation of the next speaker. I made notes from the comfort of my desk, no balancing a free notepad on my knee.

It was refreshing. Even if I missed a talk because I dipped back into some work (another luxury of the online conference), I was safe in the knowledge that it remains online for the rest of the year to be viewed at my leisure.

I had the privilege of seeing this from the presenter side too. In October, Dr Penny Trayner, Dr Andrew Bateman and I delivered an instructional course on best-practice goal setting in clinical practice at the annual conference of the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine (ACRM).

Although a complex presentation involving multiple presenters and real-world video examples, unusually, there was no sense of trepidation about everything going to plan because, like the other presenters, we had already submitted a video of the entire workshop to be broadcast right on time.

There was simply a sense of calm excitement. We were able to join the attendees in the live discussion chat, respond immediately to questions and follow the buzz on Twitter.

We were even able to ask participants to log in to Goal Manager, a cloud-based platform for facilitating the key processes of goal setting, and ‘follow along’ with a case example by filling out a patient profile using the knowledge and skills developed during the course.

This would not have been as accessible had everyone been gathered in a room, rather than sat at their computers. At the end, we hosted a live Q+A with the workshop participants and it truly had that sense of community that we all attend conferences for, connecting everyone with a shared interest live from their living rooms across the globe.

This continued throughout the conference including the poster presentations. As we well know, posters are often presented in the same room as a substantial lunch and, occasionally, complementary wine. This can make it slightly difficult to having a meaningful discussion with someone about their life’s work and the next huge contribution to neurorehabilitation.

Instead, this year’s posters were displayed on screen with a short pre-recorded narration of key themes and findings.

Dr Trayner and I presented an evaluation of real world systemic interventions run within Clinical Neuropsychology Services and we were able to give much more of an insight into the bootcamp we ran, the parenting course we delivered, and the DJ skills programme that Dr Trayner has helped to coordinate.

We were able to answer questions on these interventions both during the poster presentation and for a while afterwards on social media as people continued to revisit all of the posters long after each session. This meant that we too were able to see others’ posters and ask them questions. Everything was at our fingertips.

Of course, I describe all of this understanding its overwhelming sense of novelty.

While I have very much enjoyed learning about the latest developments in our field while wearing considerably more comfortable trousers than I would permit myself to wear in public, I would love to be in a room with the innovators, pioneers and trailblazers of neurorehabilitation, each eager to share new ideas (not forgetting the free pens – have I mentioned those?).

Networks are built at these events that go on to forge lasting collaborations and amazing developments.

Whereas academia and specialised clinical work can often exist in silos across the country, continent and world, conferences bring everyone together.

I look forward to the next event that is held in person however I do hope that not everything from this new world is discarded too quickly. This year has shown us how so many barriers to access can be broken down just by a few additions. The option for online attendance has provided entry to previously inaccessible events; the ability to re-watch talks for months afterwards has taken away the pressure of cramming hours of content into a few days while abandoning all other commitments. More people have access to the discussions and ideas shared than ever before. I hope the concessions that allow this to happen remain long after the many advantages to physical conferences resume.

In the meantime, however, I enjoy the literal home comforts that this new age of conferences brings.

As you read this article, I will have recently attended the Time For Change Online Summit by the UK Acquired Brain Injury Forum (UKABIF) with my cat on my lap and my favourite mug in hand.

At least for the time being, that is something to be enjoyed. Until I run out of pens.

www.goalmanager.co.uk

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