Imagine walking into a major international medical meeting and finding your afternoon session transformed into an intellectual, public-health version of a murder-mystery dinner party. That’s what happened at the 2015 World Hepatitis Summit last September at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow, where 550 attendees from 56 countries gathered to discuss global tactics in combating the disease responsible for 1.4 million deaths a year.
Held on day two of the three-day event, the three-hour session was listed in the agenda simply as “a simulation exercise.” But what attendees didn’t know was that they would be the ones doing the simulating, and that the interactive experience would recalibrate their understanding of emergency responsiveness in a national health crisis.
“The exercise was, how do you do a crisis plan if you have an outbreak?” said Martin Richardson, head of live experience for MCI-UK, which organized the summit on behalf of the World Hepatitis Alliance (WHA) and the World Health Organization (WHO). “It was essentially a journey for the attendees: We’re going to give you a bunch of information and have you work it out yourself.”
The simulation concept was suggested by Hande Harmanci, medical officer for WHO’s global hepatitis program and WHO’s representative on the summit’s program committee. Harmanci had done simulation exercises before, but never on this scale. So Richardson’s team settled in to brainstorming. “We asked ourselves, what’s the best way people learn?” Richardson said. “By coming up against obstacles and objections, and encountering different ways of thinking. Rather than have someone speak onstage and tell them how to do it, we wanted them to solve it themselves, and decided to do it via a piece of theater.”
They created a fake country, and a fake premise: a football world cup, a player diagnosed with viral hepatitis, and a rapid spread. Attendees had been divided into tables of 10 using numbers preprinted on their registration materials, with each group representing a different team from the same fictional national charged with solving the crisis. Fictional identities were assigned and tailored to each participant — say, minister of finance, minister of health, patient representative, government PR person — offering health professionals a new perspective on a global outbreak, perhaps even from the vantage point of someone with whom they might often butt heads.
Over the course of the afternoon, news flashes cropped up unexpectedly via video broadcasts at the front of the room — to build engagement and urgency, and show that time was running out. Using tablets, teams responded to questions asked by the “Prime Minister,” played by an actor on the video. “There was a real buzz in the room,” Richardson said, “but it wasn’t a race. It was all about discovering pitfalls and obstacles and breakthroughs for your country.”
And, incidentally, for oneself. The identity shield of role-playing offered perhaps the greatest growth and learning in the exercise, according to Harmanci, who facilitated the simulation onstage. The moment participants arrived at their tables, they assumed an alter ego; no one needed to know their career status in the real world. “Adults are very vulnerable in terms of making mistakes and losing face,” Harmanci said. “Giving people different identities gives them a certain flexibility in their thinking and a nonthreatening environment to be wrong, one where they won’t be ridiculed. Mind you, these people were very high-level government officials. I think we had five actual ministers of health playing along. If the event were run incorrectly, it could have been disastrous.”
AFTER THE OUTBREAK
While the technology ran “perfectly,” thanks to a large team of technical assistants in the back of the room, Harmanci observed a few logistical obstacles to consider for future events. Although printed materials were available in English, French, and Spanish, the language similarities and differences among the people at each table weren’t available when the team assignments were being made. Nor was there a plan in place for dealing with latecomers, whose entrance interrupted the flow of the group. In hindsight, Harmanci said, tardy arrivals should have all been put at one late table rather than slipped into tables with fewer than 10 people.
For Richardson, the greatest challenge was the scope of the experience itself. “How do you keep 550 people engaged for three to four hours?” he said. “Even if you are Steven Spielberg with the very best film, you have to worry about holding people’s interest. Map out the energy. Where are the dips? You need to drop something in there to raise the attention again. Everyone absorbs information in a different way.”
He likens creating a live, professional experience to designing a roller coaster, but one that has to work for people at both ends of the sensory spectrum. “For someone who shuts their eyes the whole time, how would you make me open my eyes?” Richardson said. “For someone more experienced, how would you make my eyes go wider? They’re two different types of audience, and you have to design it for both.”
Innovative meeting experiences are about engagement, Richardson said, and about storytelling. If you know the technology available to you, if you know how to script a series of events and are familiar with a bit of live theater and video, you can be as creative as your imagination allows you to be. “Start out with a concept that might seem crazy,” he said, “and then ask, is it valid for this environment? If not, could it be made to be?”
While the global environment of the World Hepatitis Summit had its challenges, the priority was achieving that high level of personal engagement. “In all the meetings I’ve been to in my life, people enjoy the sessions where they actually get to experience something at a personal level,” Harmanci said. “That’s when real learning starts to happen. Sometimes it’s useful to be lectured at, but not if you want to change attitudes. One of the summit’s most prominent objectives is advocacy, and advocacy requires that people gain deeper understanding to change their attitudes.”