Veering Virtual

Thoughts on the recent #GDHF2020 change in event format

As the world adjusts to our new normal and prepares for the uncertainty of the latter half of 2020, we at the Global Digital Health Network are excited to host our first ever fully VIRTUAL Global Digital Health Forum event. This annual conference typically brings hundreds of attendees from around the world to network and connect on global digital health achievements, issues and progress. 

What has changed?

  • GDHF 2020 will be held on an online platform
  • Abstracts are due by July 17:
  • Abstracts may submitted in English, French, or Spanish; sessions will be held in all three languages

What do these new changes bring?

Participants traveled to GDHF from 47 countries in 2019. Our Advisory Council is thrilled that this virtual format will now allow for increased participation from many individuals who otherwise may not have been able to attend. Joy Kamunyori from JSI notes that there are always unavoidable constraints, such as those related to funding, visas etc., that typically come with an in-person conference. She hopes that “going virtual will ease many of them and allow us to have our best-attended conference yet”. Rita Sembajwe from RTI concurs, encouraging “scholarships that are typically set aside for travel and registration to be redirected to supplying LMIC stakeholders with registration and an internet connection to participate in the forum”. 

“So many of our colleagues and partners around the world have wanted to share in the Forum.  Now, they’ll be able to do so, at their convenience.  We’re happy that more of us can participate.” – Jeanne Koepsell, Save the Children

Forum participants in the past have represented implementing partners, ministries of health and ICT, academia, private sector partners like MNOs, donors, consultants, and technology companies. Lindsey Leslie and Marla Shaivitz from JHU CCP suggested that #GDHF2020 could be “unique opportunity in which entire project teams working on digital health initiatives are able to join in and benefit from the Forum discussions”. While we always strive to have representation from our colleagues in the field, it is rare that entire teams will have the chance to attend an in-person conference like GDHF. Going virtual will allow for this and may even open the door for other non-traditional attendees.  “The virtual nature increases the potential to bring in public health professionals who might not consider digital health their focus (and therefore wouldn’t attend in-person), but are interested in learning more through virtual participation” (Randy Wilson and Sherri Haas, MSH).

Another advantage to a virtual format, specifically for our sector, is the opportunity to explore how we apply the principle of Design With The User in the conference format to hear from those using digital health solutions. “We can include COVID positive patients sharing their stories on panels about COVID tracking devices. We can finally hear directly from the overworked nurses in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, better understanding their side of the story concerning digital devices and interoperability”. (Bobby Jefferson, DAI)

There is not only more opportunity for digital health practitioners to engage with a virtual event but also for our GDHN organization “to demonstrate how digital can expand the reach and inclusivity of our network” (Emily Mangone & Sarah Romorini, Abt Associates), including the future leaders of the field. Student volunteers played an important role in putting on GDHF 2019. Student volunteer and GDHN intern Rohini Rajgopal, an MSPH/MBA student at UNC Gillings School of Global Health, sees it as “an opportunity for students and the next generation of digital health leaders to take advantage of more readily accessible connections with leaders in the field today at a singular event, without even having to leave your home”. The virtual Forum will enable students to engage in the Forum from across the globe. 

“Let us be resilient in times of uncertainty: this is what we are offering this year the GDHN2020 by becoming virtual and multilingual! Proud to contribute. Soyons résilient en période d’incertitudes: c’est ce que nous offres cette année le GDHN2020 en devenant virtuel et multilingue! Fier d’y contribuer.” (Ousmane Ly, PATH)

Thinking through some #virtualevent challenges

In the post-GDHF 2019 survey, 83% of respondents indicated that they had made new connections relevant to their work at the Forum. A change from an in person event does present unique challenges in a virtual format. Not being able to see individuals in a physical room will be different but Trinity Zan from FHI 360 hopes that “we can still create a feeling of intimacy during sessions and presentations that encourages the audience to pose questions to the speakers and to other audience members, engendering a healthy discussion of timely topics”. 

Networking is always an important part of any conference, and the GDHF is no exception. Scheduling time for virtual coffee breaks or happy hours provides attendees “an opportunity to connect in a more informal way that ultimately strengthens collaboration” (Liz Nerad and Rose Nzyoka, Palladium Group). 

Luckily, we have plenty of other #virtualconferences to look to for lessons learned. “The Global Digital Development Forum (GDDF) – the first major virtual conference in international development – proved we can have a truly global conference online, and I am excited that GDHF will build on that experience to create an even more inclusive experience for digital health professionals in every country”, saya Wayan Vota from IntraHealth International.

“With a virtual conference, the GDHN is not only acting responsibly to reduce the spread of COVID-19 but also anticipates great benefits for our sector by opening opportunities for more representative voices to engage. We are very eager to learn from the rich, first-hand experience and expertise of those often left out of international conferences – digital health developers and implementers working in their communities who are a driving force of digital transformation. I am personally excited for what will be a truly global conference on the power of digital technologies to advance health equity.” (Lauren Wall, GDHN co-chair)

Check back here in the coming weeks for more GDHF highlights and other news! And don’t forget – submit your abstracts here by July 17 for #GHDF2020:

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