There were good things and bad things. First and foremost, it seems like the NHS has signed a contract with a events company called InspiredMinds for at least two years as the conference for next year is already being promoted. Specifically, it is NHSx that signed the contract, where x stands for the new technology arm that the NHS has initiated last year with a nice 250£ of funding. Now, “the markets determine how to efficiently do things”, but the whole conference felt a bit like a “hack”, last minute thing. And considering that it was only announced at the end of the last year, this is no surprise. I assume that whoever is the events and engagement manager at the NHSx had to rush to get a conference going and decided to with a provider (InspiredMinds) who had supposedly already proven itself in a previous engagement, i.e. the same conference but “for the world”, in Basel Switzerland. So, you might ask, why would you host another conference for technology in healthcare when there is already global one? Well, it’s because this was supposed to be for the UK, hence Intelligent Health United Kingdom (IHUK). The acronym was “established” so late that the conference does not turn up on the first Google search page (at the time of writing). But it seemed like they took the whole Switzerland conference and just copy and pasted it into the UK. Is that a problem? No, if it is done well … which it kind of was, but not really.
Now, it is important that I am at the fringe of this conference. I am sure other attendants had very different experiences, so it’s important to read these comments as my comments from purely my perspective with my level of reflection.
The email said that one should be seated by 8.30am to be able to attend the intro event at 9am. I got there at 8.27am and doors still were not open by 9.10am. When they finally did, everyone had to sit through a whole lot of weird mashup videos with music that was too loud and snippets of interviews that were barely audible. When I say weird, like, I really mean weird, not like YouTube meme level weird. It’s 2/3 stock footage of semi-medical settings where each clip is shown for 500ms and all underplayed with pumping music, including a bit of Greta Thunberg (yes! why? I don’t know!). After we had all endured this, there were a bunch of artificial short-speeches by the organisers. Finally, there was a bit more substance. Tara Donnely, the CDIO (Chief Digital Officer) of NHSx, came on the stage and presented the NHSx strategy and what they are planning to achieve in the next years and how. That was good! Then, they had an ITV presenter moderate the rest of the day. She was good, but I don’t understand why you need a TV personality to moderate a conference for doctors, academic and “data scientist”. Not sure if that money was well spent. A talk by Frank Hester was a bit slow, but that meant less cognitive load, so that was nice given there was a whole day ahead of talks. He explained how simple technology already can save millions and it was convincing. Well done. He was followed by Alison Gardner who gave an excellent talk on “Inside the Pandora’s Black Box” an above average researched talk on explainability and more (I assume it’s just her research anyway). It was the best talk of the day in my opinion and I probably should have left then … . But that would introduce selection bias so I stayed the whole day. The remaining talks weren’t bad as such, it’s just that they didn’t really add much to the conversation. At that point it turned more into a collective road show for companies to show off their results, and they really SHOWED OFF, so apart from “I’m so amazing”, there was limited learning opportunity.
In the afternoon, challenge sessions were started which were interactive talks for about 60 minutes which then would break open into drawing board discussion. I only attended one and I assume that if you were really interested in a topic you would have spend your time there well, so I cannot really comment on all the sessions which three were usually run in parallel.
By around 4pm the closing ceremony started and 2/3 had left already so the 1,5k room was quite empty. The conference was considered sold out, but I don’t think there was more than about 1000 people in the room to begin with, so lots of no shows. I know that InspiredMinds has the contract and responsibility to make this a success, but overhyping everything and running those overly emotional short-videos with music way too loud is NOT what doctors or academics or researchers want when they are trying to work. When you do audio-visual animation of an audience, at least adjust it to your audience and do it well, not weird.
I also got a meeting with AI Award team. Of its 250m£ the NHSx has, it is investing 140m£ into technology solutions for healthcare at all kind of different stages of development, i.e. Phase 1 to 4. I discussed some ideas that hover around Phase 0 or -1, but learned a lot about the overall process and might come back in the 1 or 2 years when I have more solid results. So, that sessions was probably the most useful of the whole day.
NHSx, I know you’re probably stuck with InspiredMinds, so I am just going to address my recommendations to them. Everyone at the conference that I met and that was from the NHSx was professional and helpful. Well done! InspiredMinds, cut those videos, cut all unnecessary crap. Add more CONTENT, substantive talks from which people can learn. The challenges are great, keep those going. The food was good, too. Stop the hyping, if you aren’t sold out, so what. Researchers attend, because of the people they meet, not because of FOMO. If you want a quality conference, you need to be aware of the effects of self-filtering. If you throw around with hyped videos, you will get hyped individuals, not genuinely interested people with long-term ambitions. YOU signed to deliver a good engagement conference to the NHSx to YOU NEED TO DELIVER one as such. Maybe the KPIs you were given by NHSx are easy to game and selling out is all you need to do. But if the NHSx requires you to also deliver good content, then you need to step up, because at this rate you are at the danger of loosing people.
Not sure if I will go again next year, TBD.