The American Osteopathic Association (AOA) shares many of the challenges faced by other medical societies. AOA struggles with a younger physician population not as interested in member-based organizations. With CME programs now offered in many other places — and via many other platforms — its education-based conference-value proposition is less straightforward. Additionally, AOA’s trade show is under the same pressure as other medical exhibitions, with fewer pharmaceutical dollars available for sponsorships. But layered on top of those familiar challenges is a problem unique to osteopathic medicine. You could call it an identity crisis.
“When you go out and talk to people, they fundamentally don’t know the difference” between a D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) and an M.D. (doctor of allopathic medicine), said Charles F. Simpson, AOA’s chief communications officer. “And sometimes the D.O.s themselves have a difficult time articulating the difference.”
Hallmarks of osteopathic medicine include looking at the whole patient to reach a diagnosis without focusing strictly on symptoms; an emphasis on prevention and wellness; special training in the nervous and musculoskeletal systems; and the use of osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT), a hands-on approach to diagnosing, treating, and preventing illness or injury. “We tend to be more empathetic in our approach to care,” Simpson said.
Surprisingly, that lack of understanding persists even as the ranks of osteopathic students and physicians have swelled. There has been a “rapid transformation and evolution of the osteopathic profession,” Simpson said. While one in 10 physicians in the United States is a D.O., one in four medical students is in osteopathic medical school. “The profession is exploding,” he said. “We’ve seen 25-percent growth every five years since 1985. Our practice and our philosophy of medicine very much aligns with young professionals. The question is, who are these students and why are they choosing osteopathic medicine?”
AT A CROSSROADS
That question has not been lost on AOA’s board of directors, who not long ago recognized that they “needed to start paying attention to change and evolution in order to remain relevant,” Simpson said. Women now represent more than half of D.O.s under the age of 45, and students and young physicians are now more racially and geographically diverse than AOA’s traditional demographic profile of an older white male practicing in a rural area.
In July 2013, the board hired self-described “health strategist” Adrienne White-Faines as AOA’s executive director, with the expectation that she would do for AOA what she had accomplished at public-health organizations and academic medical centers throughout her career — in her words, “getting them converted for a new decade.” She had her work cut out for her. “To really rethink who are AOA’s members, what do they need, and what is the future and direction of osteopathic medicine,” she said, “we are literally hitting the refresh button in everything that we do.”
That included OMED, AOA’s Annual Osteopathic Medical Conference & Exhibition, which had a 92-percent loyalty rate. “The same people were coming back, year after year,” White-Faines said. “It wasn’t growing market share. Even though the profession was booming, OMED was not growing. And so we hired 360 Live Media to help us put fresh, new energy on designing OMED over a three- to four-year period.”
360 Live Media CEO Don Neal founded the Washington, D.C.–based event-design company four years ago on the premise that conferences, trade shows, and meetings, particularly in the association space, are built on a 20th-century model and have grown predictable. To be relevant today, organizations need to change their “connective tissue and strategy,” Neal said, and view their events “through the single lens of a media platform.” Put another way, meetings are “probably your most powerful asset in communicating what your organization stands for,” he said. “They are a great platform for advocacy, education, and community. It was that story that I think resonated with [White-Faines]. We told her that [OMED] is a great opportunity for not just educating and networking, but to bring the community together to celebrate the power and the effectiveness of this brand of medicine.”
To be relevant today, organizations need to change their connective tissue and strategy.
White-Faines wanted OMED 2014, held at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle on Oct. 25–29, to be a branding experience, Neal said, serving as a steppingstone for a forthcoming “national public-awareness campaign on the power of osteopathic medicine in a consumer-/patient-driven medical environment … to advance osteopathic medicine to be at the forefront of the transformation that’s happening in health care in this country.”
For several months before meeting with White-Faines, Neal and Amira El-Gawly, 360 Live Media’s executive vice president and chief strategy officer, had been developing a StrengthsLIVE program — based on Gallup’s wildly successful StrengthsFinder assessment tool — to be rolled out at face-to-face events. Taken by more than 11.5 million people, StrengthsFinder’s online assessment and accompanying bestselling book, StrengthsFinder 2.0, is founded on the belief that people’s natural talents often go untapped because they focus more on working on their shortcomings than on building their strengths. The assessment identifies each person’s top five Strengths out of a total of 34 possible “themes.”
Neal and El-Gawly proposed incorporating StrengthsLIVE into OMED 2014. As it happened, White-Faines had used the StrengthsFinder program for 10 years with her staff at previous organizations as a way to “build better teams and empower each of them as individuals,” she said. She was immediately sold. She said: “I loved the idea.” This would be the innovative “value-add” she wanted OMED to provide, particularly for AOA’s younger physician attendees. Plus, it would offer something that physicians wouldn’t get anywhere else — leadership and skills development. “Physicians really only get access to education [at conferences] around their specialty, or around medicine or leadership roles in health-care administration,” White-Faines said. “But here is something that can make them hone in on how they can take their own talents to be better at what they do, which is delivering care.”
StrengthsLIVE’s ability to target the entire audience while also addressing the individual was an additional selling feature. “I think a lot of the experiences that are engineered into events these days are designed for groups,” El-Gawly said, “and they don’t consider every single individual, and the journey [they’re on] at the event and that they will [continue] once they leave.”
Finally, StrengthsLIVE would enable White-Faines to cross two more items off her wish list. First, a StrengthsLIVE Pavilion in the exhibit hall would attract attendees and energize the show floor. And second, the assessment results could offer up insightful data about AOA members and OMED attendees.
‘IT’S WHO WE ARE’
The first priority was to have AOA’s staff and board take the StrengthsFinder assessment, “so they could create a buzz about it,” White-Faines said, and become program ambassadors. The assessment tool was then made available on a complimentary basis for AOA’s students and residents, “so they could start talking about it and blogging about it.”
Before registering for OMED 2014, members received StrengthsLIVE marketing messages, informing them they would get the StrengthsFinder tool free of charge as part of their registration. Once they registered, they received a welcome email with a unique access code and link to the online assessment tool. After completing the StrengthsFinder questionnaire and receiving the results of their top five Strengths, a follow-up email from AOA asked them to share those results with friends. “We were trying to create a conversation around Strengths, where not only were they hearing about it just from AOA but from other D.O.s that have taken StrengthsFinder and were sharing their results on Facebook and Twitter,” El-Gawly said. Part of the social-media marketing campaign was a competition for the first few slots of a limited number of complimentary one-on-one sessions being offered during OMED with certified Strengths coaches.
When they arrived in Seattle, all 6,000 OMED attendees were invited to a “regiception” — a cross between registration and a reception.
In the months leading up to the conference, nearly a thousand D.O. registrants took the StrengthsFinder assessment. A similar number completed the assessment on site during the meeting. In all, out of a total of 2,900 D.O. attendees, more than 1,900 participated.
When they arrived in Seattle, all 6,000 OMED attendees were invited to a “regiception” — a cross between registration and a reception. Live music, passed hors d’oeuvres and beverages, and decorations set the tone for the meeting’s celebratory “It’s Who We Are” theme, which was designed not only to celebrate the osteopathic profession, Simpson said, but to embrace “the new faces of the osteopathic medical profession.”
“‘It’s Who We Are’ was a perfect [way of] giving voice to what your natural strengths and talents are,” Neal said. “At the regiception, we worked with the AOA staff who really were ambassadors to celebrate this idea.” Attendees who had already taken the StrengthsFinder assessment could pick up a sticker or ribbon identifying their top Strengths at a StrengthsLIVE welcoming table, and stop by an adjacent photo booth and post their picture to social media. The ribbons themselves served to “activate conversations with people” throughout OMED, Neal said. “We really made it fun, but we also tied it back to the theme.”
Opening general session speaker Roy Spence touched on both the conference theme and the StrengthsFinder initiative. Founder of the Purpose Institute, Spence is “a big believer in the StrengthsFinder philosophy,” El-Gawly said. Neal added: “Roy and I met with the board at 7 a.m. on the morning of his keynote, and shared with them the unique qualities of [AOA’s volunteer] leadership from a Strengths standpoint [in terms of the board’s assessment results], and then Roy shared those Strengths of the profession to the entire audience. So it really was powerful not only in terms of its emotional impact, but [to make the statement that] there’s now evidence of what distinguishes a D.O. and what makes them strong.”
Having Spence deliver “the top strengths of American D.O.s,” Simpson said, “and explain what Learner, Achiever, Input, Responsibility, and Relator mean” as Strengths within the context of osteopathic medicine set the stage for the rest of OMED. “It changed the narrative from ‘what makes us different’ to ‘what makes us strong and unique as one community,’” El-Gawly said. After Spence’s keynote, he went to the StrengthsLIVE Pavilion, “and people were coming up to him and thanking him for injecting this optimism and hope into the profession.”
The strategically located StrengthsLIVE Pavilion — 20 feet by 30 feet — quickly became a gathering place in the exhibit hall. “What I witnessed was an amazing buzz on the floor,” Simpson said. “We purposely put that booth in the back, and that forced attendees to walk down the gauntlet, if you will, through all of the exhibits, to get to the StrengthsLIVE booth. Even if they were only there for the Strengths [program], they had the opportunity to experience the rest of the exhibit floor.”
“To me, it was like a shining star in that exhibit hall,” El-Gawly said. “It was very colorful and had these action-oriented statements and screens with video that rolled all the different Strengths and how Strengths could help improve your practice or to make you a better D.O. or deliver better patient care. That was a definite home run for the exhibit-hall experience, because at medical events [the physicians] are looking to get as much CME as they can cram into one day. And the expo hall is not No. 1 on their list.”
The StrengthsLIVE Pavilion was a close second to the flu-shot booth in visitor traffic. It was a fully inclusive space, as exhibitors were also invited to take the StrengthsFinder assessment on site. The “smart” exhibitors, Neal said, used it as an opportunity to engage with D.O.s by looking at the ribbon on their name badges and comparing their Strengths.
An impressive 70 percent of exhibitors took the assessment. “The idea that AOA would create something that would attract people to the show floor and create a common language between the D.O.s and the exhibitors,” El-Gawly said, was clearly appreciated among the supplier community. She added: “An ancillary benefit was that the exhibitors felt like the AOA was helping them develop professionally as well, which is something quite rare.”
Attendees could take the StrengthsFinder assessment at any time during OMED, but the Pavilion was open only during exhibit hours. It was designed with three distinct areas: a coaching corner with high tables and stools; an adjacent comfortable lounge, featuring StrengthsFinder materials and a table with several iPads where people could take the assessment; and the Strengths Talk stage, where four trained StrengthsFinder coaches gave 15-minute presentations.
“The coaches spent a significant amount of time at the event learning about the profession, understanding the issues, and speaking with AOA to craft relevant content,” El-Gawly said. “We found that a lot of people didn’t really understand what StrengthsFinder was and what value it could deliver to them as an individual or in their practice, and after a five-minute conversation with a coach, they were intrigued, and they would take the assessment. It became a home base for people to convene and connect. I think it was a safe zone where you weren’t going to get sold to and people cared about you as a person rather than [as] a customer or a prospect.”
If they hadn’t scheduled a one-on-one coaching session in advance of OMED via the event website, or won a slot through the social-media-sharing competition, D.O. attendees could sign up on the first morning of the conference. “The amazing thing is that before we even opened the Pavilion, all the coaching sessions were sold out — more than 150 coaching sessions had been completely booked,” El-Gawly said. “Our coaches came in early and stayed late every single day to accommodate the [demand].” Approximately 10 percent of the physicians who took the StrengthsFinder assessment received personalized coaching.
According to Paul Allen, Gallup’s global strengths evangelist, having coaches available to help D.O.s “unpack” their Strengths was Strengths-LIVE’s “secret sauce.” It enabled physicians to start thinking about how to use them “intentionally” in their daily lives, Allen said, in order “to be more engaged, fulfilled, and productive.”
The level of engagement and traffic at the StrengthsLIVE Pavilion “far exceeded expectations,” Simpson said. White-Faines was equally enthusiastic. “360 created this living-room space that welcomed people,” she said. “It brought community and energy to the exhibit floor — a kind of inspirational energy where people are being fed, and that is hard to do. That is really hard to do.”
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