A life-saving conference legacy

4 minute read

Public events, patient presenters and press coverage: How the European Respiratory Society Congress delivers an award-winning legacy of public health.

Association conferences are catalysts for change. Just ask the delegates making career-defining connections in the hallways and sessions. But when an event is paired with a social-responsibility initiative, it can leave a conference legacy that reaches far beyond the venue walls.

The European Respiratory Society Congress is a good example of a conference leaving a legacy of public education and community wellbeing in its wake. Since 2014, the congress has been the driving force behind a lung-health campaign targeted at its host community. In 2019, this life-saving legacy was acknowledged by BestCities and ICCA as a source of reference and inspiration for conference planners everywhere.

Setting out the campaign goals

Back in 2014, the European Lung Foundation (ELF) and the European Respiratory Society (ERS) came together to form a long-term health awareness campaign. Lung disease is a leading cause of death worldwide. But a rising number of people are also living with chronic conditions like asthma. Healthy Lungs for Life would leave a legacy of improved quality of life for lung disease patients and boost prevention and public education. The driving force behind the campaign would be the annual ERS Congress. 

Each year, the international congress draws 20,000 respiratory medicine professionals to a European host city for five days. This short-term addition of knowledge and energy to each location laid the perfect ground for creating long-term change. The campaign would make good use of this to boost messages about the importance of lung health, and get local people and policymakers to make healthier decisions.

So how did they do it?

A public programme of events

Boosting public engagement is one of the most obvious ways of leaving an effective conference legacy. So each year, the programme kicks off at the congress, bringing events like air-quality monitoring and exercise classes that are open to everyone. “Healthy Lungs for Life events are designed to help local people learn about the best ways to protect their lungs,” says ELF Chair Isabel Saraiva. “It’s an opportunity to raise awareness of lung health and encourage local policymakers to make positive changes so that everyone is able to breathe clean air.” 

For two days during the 2019 congress in Madrid, for example, the ELF-ERS campaign organisers installed a tent on the esplanade of the Nuevos Ministerios metro station. Here, members of the public had the opportunity to take a free lung health test and consult experts in the field.

Members of the public taking free lung tests as part of the ERS Congress public outreach campaign

Members of the public taking free lung tests as part of the Healthy Lungs for Life campaign

And as part of the campaign, a “meet the experts” session targeted at respiratory patients and the public was held at Madrid’s Ministry of Health. Specialists who were in town for the congress gave talks focusing on the campaign’s themes of tobacco, air quality, vaccines and physical activity. And patients spoke about their experiences of living with lung disease.

Drumming up media interest

The campaign’s themes “have been gaining more and more attention from the media over the last few years,” says Isabel. The campaign capitalises on this by distributing carefully timed media releases throughout the week that are based on research presented at the congress. The team also works with local press agencies and holds a press conference where congress keynote speakers and local partners are available to answer questions on lung health.

In Madrid this year, the press were especially interested in the topic of clean air and its importance for lung health, due to the controversial suspension of Madrid’s clean air zone.

A focus on patient inclusion

“It’s vitally important that people living with lung conditions have the opportunity to influence research and policy. Equally, researchers and healthcare professionals find it very useful to hear from people with personal experience of the diseases they are researching or treating, ” says Isabel.

So local patients with lung conditions play a key role in discussions at the congress. They also take part in a patient-forum session that allows them to have active discussions with delegates who are respiratory medicine professionals. This year the forum focussed on vaccination.

The ELF supports patients to get involved by “helping them travel and stay in the host city, providing a guide for the Congress centre itself, and helping them to develop and rehearse their presentations,” says Isabel. And to assist these presenters in representing themselves and others, the foundation runs the European Patient Ambassador Programme, a free online course that equips them with skills including presenting at scientific conferences. 

Educating healthcare professionals to change their practices

“Healthcare professionals who engage with the campaign are more equipped to talk to their patients about making positive changes to protect their lungs,” says Isabel. So the Healthy Lungs for Life campaign focuses on educating them to change their practices via a technical stream in the congress that’s dedicated to the campaign. 

And as part of its place within the programme, a Healthy Lungs for Life travel grant is awarded to the best abstract on one of the campaign’s themes. This helps attract high-quality research on lung disease prevention.

Working with local partners for a continuing legacy

While an ongoing event can inject seemingly endless energy into an issue, what happens to this conference legacy once the show leaves town? Each year, the campaigns focus on topics that are of most significance in the host city at that time, and the organisers enlist local help to further their impact. 

“One of the key aspects of Healthy Lungs for Life is working with local partners (including charities, societies and local government) so that the actions that are started during the ERS Congress can continue and grow after the ERS Congress has finished.” 

The results

This conference leaves a community legacy that goes far beyond hotel rooms and coffee cups.

“The aim is to change behaviour,” says Isabel, “and to explain how [people] can make changes to their life that can improve the quality of the air that they breathe. It is hoped that changing individuals’ views will have a knock-on effect with their families and friends as well.”

Dee McCurry

Dee moved back from London to help Ex Ordo tell their story. Although she finds it tough to find turmeric lattes and other hipster nonsense in Galway, she enjoys writing about the weird and wonderful world of research conferences.