With Just 2 Weeks’ Notice, National Kidney Foundation Moves Spring Clinical Meetings to Virtual with Zoom 

With Just 2 Weeks’ Notice, National Kidney Foundation Moves Spring Clinical Meetings to Virtual with Zoom 

Moving large in-person events to virtual ones with agility isn’t easy, but the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) showed us that it is possible, turning its flagship event into a successful, secure virtual conference using Zoom in a matter of weeks. 

The nonprofit National Kidney Foundation’s Spring Clinical Meetings is an annual conference designed to provide education, both accredited and non-accredited, to over 3,000 professionals in the kidney healthcare space. The event offers learning tracks for nephrologists, dialysis nurses and technicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, social workers, transplant coordinators, and renal dietitians.

The Spring Clinical Meetings conference ultimately provides opportunities for:

  • Healthcare professionals to earn continuing education credits
  • Researchers to present and discuss their latest research
  • Recognizing individuals who have made significant contributions to the field of kidney disease
  • Medical device organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and other nonprofits to showcase their latest products and services

But as the COVID-19 pandemic moved throughout the world, organizer Jessica Joseph knew the show wouldn’t go on as planned in New Orleans.

“We felt like we had to do something and not let this whole year of planning really important content go to waste,” said Joseph, NKF’s Senior Vice President of Scientific Operations, who’s been putting on NKF’s Spring Clinical Meetings for the past 16 years. “Clinicians need to consistently obtain credits in their field of expertise, or they will lose their certification. We help facilitate their constant accreditation. But even more crucial is that the Spring Clinical Meetings support clinicians in providing the most current treatment options and care for patients with all stages of kidney disease.”

National Kidney Foundation CEO Kevin Longino agreed.

“This is a huge event for our clinical community and a significant fundraiser for the Foundation,” Longino said. “It absolutely had to proceed.”

With cancellation threatening the March 26-29 conference, Jessica Joseph and the National Kidney Foundation demonstrated just how innovative organizations are rapidly adapting to the challenges of COVID-19. 

The shift to a virtual conference

Just a few weeks before the scheduled event and a rapidly emerging public health crisis, Joseph and her team had to make the call on whether it would proceed. Dialysis patients are at greater risk for COVID-19, and their clinical caregivers couldn’t get to New Orleans — one of the virus hotspots in the U.S. — without risking creating mini-epicenters across the country.

Joseph decided to go virtual March 9 and announced it to attendees on March 10. The NKF team contacted Zoom the next day to figure out how to make it all happen.

“We had used Zoom Meetings internally for a while, so we reached out, and the Zoom team really helped us understand what was possible,” Joseph said.

NKF obtained more than a dozen Zoom webinar licenses for the event and planned to use Zoom to host the entire conference in the same exact way — same tracks, same sessions, and in the same time zone — it would have in person.

“We used all webinars all the way through, but had we known in time that one specific session wanted to do breakout groups, we could have easily scheduled that as a Zoom Meeting and utilized the Breakout Rooms feature,” Joseph said. 

Communicating the new logistics for the Spring Clinical Meetings as quickly as possible was a challenge, Joseph noted, but planning and preparation upfront helped mitigate that.

“Lots of people were skeptical that it could be pulled off (virtually), especially the speakers who were used to presenting to a room full of people,” she said. “Once we set up all the Zoom webinar IDs, we scheduled the speakers and sent out calendar invites with unique panelist links for each presenter. We also did some planning and run-throughs for corporate-sponsored symposiums and the keynote sessions to make sure everyone tested out the Q&A feature, screen sharing, and that their mics all worked.”

The Foundation also used Zoom’s webinar polling feature for at least 60% of the sessions to gauge knowledge levels, interest in certain areas, and encourage debate. This type of engagement is not only a good way to keep people participating and learning, it’s often a requirement.

“For continuing medical education for pharmacists, for instance, you have to have active learning strategies built in,” Joseph said. “And polling is the perfect tool to ensure that happens.”

Benefits of the virtual platform

The virtual Spring Clinical Meetings provided some clear benefits for attendees and even non-attendees, according to Joseph:

  • More expo capacity: A pharma company might only be able to present to 50 people in a physical exhibit hall during the Exhibitor Showcase. However, 175 to 250 people were joining comparable sessions in the renamed Virtual Product Theater.
  • Improved recording: The Foundation was able to record and post sessions online much more quickly and cost-effectively with Zoom. The teams previously only recorded a handful of the conference sessions.
  • More opportunities for credits: All those recordings mean more people can access the sessions and get their credits online. NKF kept registration open till the end of April to extend the opportunity to earn credits.
  • Expanded access: Once deciding to go virtual, NKF allowed anyone who wanted to watch the sessions do so without registering for the conference. (Attendees still had to register for the conference to receive credits.)

“We just got the best feedback from attendees, and even the speakers that were a little skeptical were blown away by the amount of engagement and how smoothly it all went,” she said. “Someone even said, ‘It seemed like this conference was made to be virtual.’ ”

And when asked about security concerns related to a virtual event, Joseph said disruptions wouldn’t be an issue because of the nature of the Zoom platform.

Zoom webinars inherently protect against disruptions because only our pre-selected panelists had audio/video capabilities,” she said. “In addition, Zoom has multiple admin settings that allowed us to monitor and limit chat functionality in the event of any issues. I appreciated having the flexibility to manage the control of the settings based on my program’s needs.”

‘Pivot, adapt & deliver’

Longino said the four-day event saw an 11% uptick in attendance over last year, with 3,583 attendees virtually experiencing 130 sessions and 338 presenters, which included Deputy Secretary Eric D. Hargan of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as this year’s Plenary Speaker.

Hargan was able to provide detailed progress reports on the recent Advancing American Kidney Health initiative as well as timely updates on COVID-19 response, something that maybe wouldn’t have been possible without the swift action from Joseph and the NKF team.

Longino says that pivoting to a virtual conference can be done successfully, but meeting such a short turnaround is a testament to NKF staff adapting quickly, teams staying focused on the goal, and having the right partners.

“In our clinical and nonprofit world, we have never heard anything like this happening, certainly not at this kind of scale,” he said. “We were able to pivot, adapt, and deliver a virtual meeting of this size because of Zoom.”

He added: “Our event went off without any problems whatsoever, and we got nothing but positive feedback. The whole process of adding more accounts and the other Zoom support we received was simply outstanding. Zoom’s technology and the Zoom team helped us transition our Spring Clinical Meetings to a virtual platform successfully.” 

With the higher virtual attendance numbers, Joseph said she’s considering a hybrid virtual/on-premise event for the 2021 Spring Clinical Meetings in Orlando.

“For those who can’t travel or take the time off, this is a great way to get the education credits they need,” she said. “The medical education industry and medical research space in general could benefit from more flexibility. There are doctors, nurses, and clinicians on the front lines fighting the coronavirus right now, and some had to cancel on this conference because their cities were highly affected. Providing platforms that allow the medical community to be virtually accessible and engaged is the future.”

Take your event virtual with Zoom 

The National Kidney Foundation (NKF) is a great example of how moving in-person events to virtual ones can be done successfully and agilely using Zoom. You can read Jessica Joseph’s LinkedIn post for her “from the trenches” account on what it took to shift the Spring Clinical Meetings to virtual. You can also check out our support article on Zoom Meetings vs. Zoom Video Webinars to help determine the best solution for your virtual conference.

For a step-by-step guide for successfully hosting an online conference and tips for how to run a virtual conference, check out the “Running Engaging Online Events” e-book from Zoom’s event and technology experts:

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