#23 The Call of the Crowd: Why Attend HPE Conferences?

Episode Host: Jason Frank

Image displaying a virual meeting

Episode article:

Ram, S. S., Stricker, D., Pannetier, C., Tabin, N., Costello, R. W., Stolz, D., Eva, K. W., & Huwendiek, S. (2023). Cliques within the crowd: Identifying medical conference attendee subgroups by their motivations for participation. Advances in Health Sciences Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10459-023-10220-3

Been to any good HPE conferences lately? Ever think about why so many of us attend? Or stay home? This study tries to shed some light on medical conference attendee motivation.


Every year, thousands of nurses, physicians, researchers and health professionals of all stripes get time off work, buy plane tickets, get jet lag, stay in cheap hotels, eat rubber chicken, drink bad coffee, and seek out their colleagues at conferences. Is this an addiction to PowerPoint karaoke? Is this loneliness for someone who understands the same arcane theories that few human beings have heard of? Is this a chance to wear those shoes in Europe?

There is a sub-genre of research that looks specifically at the meetings of professions and industry representatives. This work usually highlights that conferences are a powerful way to disseminate innovations and facilitate connections across scholars and practitioners. Here is a list of the big motivations for going to conferences from previous research:

  1. Present work and get feedback
  2. Facilitate collaborative work
  3. Advance personal learning
  4. Face to face discussions with colleagues
  5. Networking
  6. Tourism
  7. Financial ability to attend.

Conferences are seen as vital to the advancement of human endeavours.

The COVID pandemic slammed professional conferences hard, forcing dramatic and desperate changes. Some meetings became virtual, some ceased to exist. Those that returned found that their costs doubled, and their attendees demanded hybrid options. The authors of this paper pitch that conference organizers, and health professions generally, would benefit from new post-pandemic insights into conference attendees’ motivations for attending.


This paper is in Advances in Health Sciences Education 2023. Ram et al set out to characterize the motivations of attendees to professional conferences, and whether there are distinct subgroups of attendees.

This study was part of a PhD thesis and sponsored by the European Respiratory Society.


The authors say they selected a “pragmatic constructivist case study approach using mixed methods”. (Recall that we previously discussed case studies as in-depth examinations of a small number of instances of a phenomenon in a real-life context).

The setting was a “large-scale virtual medical conference” of 29020 attendees. The 2 methods used included:

  • Interviews of conference organizers using a stimulus from previous literature, and
  • Surveys of attendees developed using interview findings and Tony Artino’s AMEE guide to questionnaire design.

Analysis used Braun & Clarke’s 6-phase thematic approach. Codes were identified, discussed, and refined. A k-means cluster analysis of the survey data was used to identify subgroups.

The authors included a reflexivity statement that indicates that the author group was a mix of conference organizers and outside researchers.


13/23 conference leaders participated in interviews. Two main themes were identified describing factors that influence conference motivation:

  1. Depth of specializing in a field leads to seeking focused content, and
  2. Engagement with past conferences shifts to social motivations.

1229 participants completed the survey for a 4.2% response rate. Most were from Europe. Most were middle-aged men.

Motivation themes included: personal goals, social goals, and learning goals. 3 Subgroups were identified:

  1. Group 1 endorsed all 3 motivations (41%)
  2. Group 2 endorsed learning (28%),
  3. Group 3 (15%) endorsed social factors f2f and learning for virtual conferences. These were the least satisfied by the virtual format

At the time of the study in 2020, 2/3 of respondents preferred hybrid conferences.


The authors concluded that there were 3 distinct subgroups of attendees during the pandemic virtual conference era. This can inform future conference planning.


I chose this paper because HPE conferences are a big part of a scholar’s annual activities. Conferences have the potential to facilitate dissemination and debate to advance our field. As Lara pointed out, they are also a vehicle for the agenda of the host organization.

The choice of methods in this paper (survey) missed the opportunity to really understand this phenomenon. Interviews and focus groups would have been more powerful.


Artino, A. R., La Rochelle, J. S., Dezee, K. J., & Gehlbach, H. (2014). Developing questionnaires for educational research: AMEE Guide No. 87. Medical Teacher, 36(6), 463–474. https://doi.org/10.3109/0142159X.2014.889814

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77–101. https://doi.org/10.1191/1478088706qp063oa


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