Thoughtful improvements may increase dental conference attendance

2013 05 29 10 37 53 47 Knowles Lisa 200 20130529173836

We've seen time and again that attendance at state and national dental conferences is declining. Is this a sign of despair? Should we panic? No, I don't think so. We simply need to adapt and think differently.

Lisa Knowles, DDS.Lisa Knowles, DDS.

How many times have you attended your state's annual session and thought, "I could do this better" or "I wish they'd do this differently"?

Well, as the saying goes, be careful of what you wish for, as I had the opportunity to serve on our state's annual session committee for the past three years, and this year I was the chair.

As I prepared to chair the Michigan Dental Association's annual session, several learning moments surfaced. I call the following the Emerging Considerations When Chairing a Dental Conference list.

Personal experiences are important. As we know, personal experiences are important -- just like first patient experiences are important. The overall "feel" of the experience matters -- just like it's important for our patients to "feel" a good vibe when they enter our offices. The experience counts. It counts for everyone. It's like planning a wedding reception -- all ages and differences must be considered.

Think about creating experiences for all age groups. We broke down preferences based on generations, such as baby boomers and millennials. We realized boomers, for example, often like recognition for their accomplishments; therefore, ceremonial pins and plaques may be appropriate. Conversely, Gen X-ers may want efficiency and structure to keep things moving. Some dentists may want an assisted listening device; 30 years of a whistling handpiece could catch up with any of us. Although it's impossible to please everyone, forethought does help when trying to please a crowd.

Consider gender needs. One member suggested a lactation station for nursing moms. He had been to another conference where this need was met with great appreciation. As I thought back to my days of breastfeeding, I would have raved about a lactation station. Instead, I was forced to leave the conference, go back to my hotel, pump and store, and rush back to catch an afternoon session. Sometimes I didn't even go to continuing education sessions because I did not want to be hassled.

What if we made it convenient and welcoming to mothers? More women are entering dental school and that means more mamas out there looking for continuing education (CE) opportunities.

Think about ways to add humor and fun. Humor is always welcome. We do serious work and an ability to let loose, let our guard down, and laugh among one another is a healthy adjunct. With many dentists, a bit of intentional coaxing is needed to create this type of atmosphere. For our session, we will have an inflatable baseball throwing area within the exhibit hall. We decided to add a bit of friendly competition and a bit of fun. And, it's for a good cause: the Mission of Mercy program in our state.

Rethink course start and stop times. I cannot speak for everyone, but I can tell you I am never hurting for CE credits in our three-year Michigan time span. If I don't get two extra CE credits at a conference, I will not be worried.

I believe it is paramount for us as healthcare professionals to model a healthy way of life. We should get rest, eat well, and take time to exercise. When extracurricular events start at 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. and last until 10 or 11:00 p.m., in addition to our CE sessions, there is little time left to relax and feel rested. If we are unwilling to modify our lifestyles, it is hypocritical to expect these changes in our patients. The structure counts.

Infuse healthy lifestyle options at conferences. We added a "rejuvenate area" this year, complete with beginner yoga and meditation each morning. We took advantage of the proximity of the Lansing River Trail to offer a guided walk or run each morning for those with a desire to exercise with like-minded professionals. On one day, we will have a presentation on healthy, green smoothies and offer free samples. Chair massages will be available, and a local health park will be demonstrating healthy cooking options one afternoon. It is no secret that dental professionals lead busy, stress-filled lives. Retraining our brains is as important as it is to help our patients learn how to retrain theirs when it comes to stress management and lifestyle behaviors.

Remember the essence of our conferences. We are sponges with a desire to learn. We can learn from multiple people -- from course instructors, showroom salespeople, and one another.

“The people are what matter at our conferences -- just like in our practices.”

With busy schedules, it takes an intentional effort to even get to conferences. We must remember that conferences are our filling stations. The people we meet and the information we acquire are sparks. They reignite our passion for our profession, especially when that passion is burning a little low. It is refreshing and relieving to empathize and commiserate with someone who totally and completely understands our lives. The people are what matter at our conferences -- just like in our practices.

Survey attendees onsite. If conference leaders want accurate and thoughtful feedback (to ensure a memorable and enjoyable experience), ask for it promptly while sentiments are fresh in people's minds. Not only does this increase the number of returned surveys, it also creates less of a burden for the attendees later.

Be intentional, and go to conferences. It is difficult to break away from the day-to-day operations and sacrifice the income loss by not seeing patients. It is hard to leave our families on weekends and overnights. I know. I also know professionals need professional development. It enhances our abilities to think. When we take this time for ourselves, we add value to our patients' experiences later on. We can only help others after we help ourselves. This trend started early on. First we went to dental school to help ourselves, and then we learned to help others. This process is ongoing and needs to be continually fed. The more we learn, the more we can teach, explain, and recommend.

Organized dentistry must also ebb and flow to meet the needs of a diverse group of professionals. We must remember that we are the members of organized dentistry helping to shape what we need and want. Our personal involvement helps set the direction for our associations. Without us, it's guesswork. I would encourage anyone to get involved in a local, state, or national association.

Most important, I would encourage each member to let go of the thoughts of what conferences were and what continuing education was in the land of yesteryear. It will never be like that again. It will be what it is today. And, that's OK.

Lisa Knowles, DDS, is the founder and CEO of IntentionalDental Consulting. For more information, contact her at or 517-331-3688. Visit her blog site at or website at

The comments and observations expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or admonishment of any particular idea, vendor, or organization.

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