Education is a lifelong commitment, particularly when we embark on a career in healthcare.  It permeates our lives from the moment we start our journey, guiding our paths every step of the way.  I’ve never considered myself a natural teacher- patience does not come easily to me.  However, that has changed, as anyone with two toddlers can attest!  Although unsure if I am skilled at teaching, the drive to train and guide the next generation of healthcare providers is deeply ingrained in me.  So, when the opportunity arose to organize a continuing medical educational (CME) conference for my local community, it was an easy decision.

Ground Zero

The preliminary discussions about the conference centered around its potential impact on the community.  As an employee of a local urgent care company that exclusively hires APPs as providers, one of our main objectives was to address the challenges our providers frequently encounter and the conditions we often see in our clinics.  This was a critical guide in selecting the conference topics, which we will delve into shortly.

To my knowledge, our local community had never hosted an educational conference that offered CME.  The second key feature we aimed to provide through our conference was the opportunity for attendees to earn free CME credits.  Given that I was one of the newest managerial hires with the least responsibilities, I was entrusted with shaping this conference into what we envisioned for this year and, hopefully, for many years to come.

Planning stage

Choosing Topics

Organizing the conference was no small feat, but selecting the topics was surprisingly simple.  While I could boast about conducting an extensive analysis of patient complaints over the past three years to systematically choose topics relevant to the most common diagnoses seen in our urgent care, the truth is, our initial brainstorming session yielded an abundance of options.  We generated a list of 30-40 potential topics.  Based off the time we had available, we wanted somewhere between 12 and 15 since we were planning a full day on Friday and a half day on Saturday, with some workshops mixed in.  We narrowed the list, primarily choosing the “most” pressing topics to educate our urgent care employees about while maintaining the desire to engage interest for the community attending since this was an educational conference after all.  Our finalized topic list included Undifferentiated Abdominal Pain, Geriatrics, Neurology, Undifferentiated Chest Pain, EKG Reading, Upper and Lower Extremity Reading, Ethics, Respiratory Complaints, Pediatrics, and the ever-popular Rashes.  Are you curious about the clever (or cheesy) names we came up with for each session and how we structured the schedule?  Check out the conference website for all the details here.

Choosing Speakers (Doctors vs APPs)

During the initial discussions about potential speakers, a brief debate ensued regarding whether to invite experienced APPs or Physicians as the primary lecturers.  For this year, we decided to feature Physicians for the lecture sessions, allowing APPs to facilitate the hands-on workshops.  This combination provided a mix of high-level lectures and interactive discussions.

We were fortunate to have specialists in Cardiology and Pediatrics join our lineup, while a blend of Emergency Room and Family Medicine Physicians led other sessions.  The only exception was our EKG lecturer, a local community Paramedic that teaches EKG reading to EMTs and fellow Paramedics.  His lecture was a conference favorite, so we were thankful to have him there and hope to have him return in the future.

Fortunately, recruiting speakers was relatively straightforward: the real challenge lay in ensuring they submitted their materials on time, but more on that to come.

Choosing Workshops

One of the most anticipated aspects of any conference, especially for those new to practice, is undoubtedly the skills section.  Am I right?  Recognizing the value of hands-on learning, we prioritized offering a selection of workshops.  Initially, we had a list of 10 workshops that we were keen to include, but we had to narrow our list due to time constraints.  We settled on Suturing, IV/Blood draw, Splinting, I&D, and EKG reading.

These workshops proved popular among attendees, providing practical knowledge and skills that could be directly applied to their daily work.  Organizing these sessions was straightforward, and given their success, we’re eager to expand our workshop offerings in the future.

Logistics for CME Approval

Securing CME approval for the conference proved to be the most challenging and time-consuming aspect of the organizing process.  We chose AAPA for CME approval since it allows Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants to earn Category 1 CME Credit.  The application process through AAPA is quite extensive and requires several crucial components.

Key requirements include non-disclosure letters from all the lecturers and workshop leaders, the conference schedule, learning objectives for each topic, sample marketing materials, a sample evaluation form for each lecture, and a sample of the CME award certificate attendees would receive.  Once all these materials were compiled, they had to be organized using AAPA’s user-friendly templated Excel sheet and included in the online application.  The application also asks a series of questions to gauge the professional benefits attendees will gain from the conference and the justification for awarding CME credit.

Furthermore, AAPA emphasizes the inclusion of Physician Assistants in the planning and organization of the conference.  Fortunately, I was the primary organizer, and we had several PAs facilitating the workshops.  The most frustrating task was setting deadlines for the Physicians to return signed disclosure forms, which took several weeks to complete.  I was grateful for the ample time I had set aside for this process.  It’s important to note that AAPA recommends allowing at least 21 days for CME approval, so this should be considered when applying for CME credit.

office spreadsheets

Marketing (Creating Website, Materials)

While awaiting CME approval, we proactively initiated our marketing campaign to promote the conference within our local community.  Our primary marketing strategies were radio advertisements and face-to-face interactions.  We designed postcards and personally distributed them to local healthcare establishments employing APPs: family practice clinics, urgent care centers, specialty clinics, and small surrounding rural hospitals.

To ensure efficiency and effectiveness, we established a marketing schedule that prioritized reaching key locations first.  Additionally, we set aside time two weeks before the conference to send reminder emails to pre-registered individuals, helping keep the event top of mind.

We also engaged with the local PA and NP training programs.  We created an email-friendly PDF marketing flyer and requested that they distribute it to their current students and alumni from the past three years.  This allowed us to tap into a broader network of healthcare professionals who might be interested in attending our conference.  

Down to the wire

As the conference date drew closer, our primary concerns revolved around IT coordination, obtaining lecture materials from our speakers (to prepare for potential last-minute cancellations), ensuring clear signage for the campus, and directing attendees to the appropriate locations.

We were fortunate that our local Physician Assistant program generously offered us access to their state-of-the-art- facilities at no cost.  This was a massive win for us, especially in our inaugural year, and the venue proved to be a perfect fit for our needs.

The phrase “down to the wire” barely scratches the surface of the last-minute rush.  Even as someone who is comfortable procrastinating, my nerves were on edge as I received some lectures on the morning of the conference.  However, everything came together beautifully, and all lectures were submitted and delivered as scheduled.

Conference weekend

The anticipation I felt as the conference date approached took me by surprise.  While I was confident in our preparations and the quality of our speakers’ materials, I couldn’t shake the nervousness about potentially overlooking some details, given that this was our inaugural conference.  Fortunately, everything went off without any significant hitches.

The schedule unfolded seamlessly, and the lectures were rich with valuable information.  The speakers educated our participants and kept them engaged and entertained.  One of my personal highlights was the Physician and APP panels we assembled.  Four of our Physician speakers sat for a one-hour Q&A session, during which they fielded questions from the audience.  For the APP panel, a NP and fellow business owner and I joined together to answer questions related to APP roles.  Both panels were successful, fostering active participation and thoughtful queries.  I feared we might sit silently for an hour, but that concern proved unfounded.

While the CME conference was not perfect, the minor hiccups we encountered were manageable and provided valuable insights for future efforts.  The smooth execution and fulfillment of the conference’s mission were the true silver linings of this event.  We managed to record the entire event via Zoom using the school’s existing technology, and I’m thrilled to have this content on hand for our urgent care providers.  This archive will also serve as a reference point for future conferences, allowing us to track our progress and continually improve year after year.

Physician Panel at Conference
Lessons for the future

1. Alphabetize the Freaking Check-In List: A seemingly trivial detail turned out to be a significant oversight, leading to some confusion and delays for our registration volunteers.  In the future, we’ll ensure the check-in process is smoother by alphabetically organizing participant names.

2. Expand Marketing Efforts: While our first year saw a decent turnout of around 60 APPs, we recognize the potential for further growth.  In subsequent years, we will enhance our digital marketing approach, leverage social media and digital ads, utilize local APP societies, and expand our email marketing efforts using our existing conference registration list.  

3. Enhance Mixer Event Advertising: The mixer event, which we had high hopes for, fell short of expectations.  To improve attendance, we’ll consider changing the event’s timing- perhaps holding it the night before the conference- or moving it to the same building as the lectures.  Drawing inspiration from other conferences, we are considering hosting it at a hotel when our attendance outgrows the current facility.

4. CME Evaluation Form Improvement: Our initial method of using Google Forms for evaluations, accessed via a QR code, was another area for improvement.  On the second day, we switched from handing out papers with the QR code to displaying the QR codes via slideshow between each lecture, which proved much more efficient.  We’ll refine this process further in future attempts.

5. Create a “Downtime” Slideshow: We overlooked creating a slideshow for breaks.  This could have been an opportunity to promote the mixer, display the QR codes, and improve aesthetics.

6. Print Lecture Outlines: Many attendees suggested providing printed outlines of the lectures with space for notes.  Although we offered a branded conference notebook, adding this element would be a valuable touch for the note-takers in the audience.  It would require receiving the finalized lecture materials earlier, but the effort could enhance the attendee experience. This would especially be beneficial for the students in attendance, since some of the information would be new to them at this type of educational conference tailored mainly to practicing providers.

7. Formal Speaker Introductions: Since all speakers were close friends and colleagues, we should have noticed the importance of formal introductions.  Moving forward, we’ll prepare introductions highlighting the speakers’ educational background and credentials.

8. Hold Content Meetings with Speakers: Although our speakers performed admirably, we observed some content overlap between lectures.  To mitigate this, we plan to hold content meetings with speakers to discuss desired topics and outlines before giving them creative freedom.

9. Buy Stir Straws for Coffee: We supplied breakfast each morning, snacks for the breaks, lunch on Friday, and had coffee sponsored.  One thing we should have remembered: stir straws for the coffee.  It’s a small detail, but it’s another item to remember.

Conclusion

Taking the helm for the inaugural conference was a rewarding first initiative as a member of the urgent care management team.  This experience has equipped me to make this conference a recurring annual event and inspired me to envision its evolution into a paid gathering.  In true entrepreneurial spirit, orchestrating this conference sparked ideas for hosting larger events in different markets and for various disciplines.

I hope my experiences, including the missteps, have provided valuable insights into the intricacies of organizing a CME educational conference.  If you have any questions or are curious about our marketing materials or the application process, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.  I’m here to help!  As always, thanks for reading. Remember to subscribe below for more content.