Wednesday, November 9, 2011

My Trip through the APHA Expo Hall: Where Theory Meets Practice

From October 29 – November 2, 2011, APHA’s held its 139th Annual Meeting & Exposition in Washington, DC. APHA stands for the American Public Health Association which, I believe, is the largest organization of public health researchers and professionals in our country. Over 13,000 people reportedly registered to attend APHA this year. One of those persons was myself, the Training Coordinator for the SC Campaign. While I grew up near Washington, D.C., and lived there as an intern in 2007, I was not prepared for the experience about to take place. I truly believe anyone who works in the field of Public Health should attend APHA at least once. You need to see with your own eyes, the scope and scale of this conference. Imagine how Dorothy felt when seeing OZ for the first time.

When I first arrived at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center (which takes up two full city blocks) – I followed the crowd and signs up to the third floor where I registered with a swipe of my conference issued ID card. That’s right, you don’t just get a name badge, they give you an ID Card (I’ll explain why in a minute). They handed me the conference program with the complete list of presentations, poster sessions, meetings, caucuses, meet n’ greets, and vendors was 418 pages long. “That’s not a program,” someone remarked to me, “it’s a phone book.” Good thing they gave us an APHA branded recyclable shoulder bag to carry the book and other items.

Then I took a walk through the Expo Hall. Now “hall” is a deceiving term, think more like airplane hanger, or better yet, picture a sci-fi movie with spaceships landing in a spaceport. That’s the size and scale of this room. APHA reported that over 650 businesses had spaces in the Expo Hall, but from where I stood, it looked like thousands of booths!
(pictured: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (aka CDC) station featuring national and global health projects)
Overwhelmed by the scale of the spaces, I quickly retreated to a couch in the internet lounge (offering free Wi-Fi) so that I could review my conference ‘phone book’ (I mean, program) and chart my course for the next few days. I planned out each day, where I would be every 1-2 hours. There were 30 minute breaks between sessions, which seems like a long time but with long walks across the building, lines for coffee/food, and the time it took to find the closest restroom, 30 minutes seemed barely enough time to get a good seat in the next session.

The scientific presentation sessions were just that - very scientific. The opportunity to hear from expert researchers in the field was eye-opening but often over my head since everyone who knows me, knows that research isn’t my cup of tea. I like to read the executive summaries at the beginning of each journal article, and I’m infamous for skimming through a 30 page report in too short a time. I’m sure others in the field of teen pregnancy prevention can relate, while others who love research and data are saying “shame on you, Ryan.”

So after hours of sessions – hearing lots of theory and tons of data points, regression models, p values, etc.... it was time for me to rerevisit the “spaceport” (I mean, Expo Hall). The Expo Hall was alive with activity. The loud speaker announced upcoming book signings and raffle drawings for those who had visited 24 premiere vendor books and gotten a stamp from each on their conference ‘passport’. There were booths from most of the major universities and schools of public health in the country. Students looking for advanced degrees or graduates looking for employment stopped from station to station. My favorite was a booth set-up like a living room and the admissions staff invited you to have a chat on their sofas.

The next row over, there was a mobile dentist office in a converted RV set-up complete with a LCD TV on the side showing educational videos about oral hygiene. One booth featured the APRIL aging software that helps you see what you will look like at 72 if you eat unhealthy foods, smoke, or tan without UV protection. Trust me, the smoking, tanning, fast food eating Ryan at 72 is NOT someone I hope to ever become… There was one vendor that asked us to take off our shoes and stuck special support cushions in there, before you knew it, they felt so good you almost gave them $38 to keep them in your shoes – but I resisted their sales ploy. If you saw a vendor who you liked and wanted more information from, you could give them your ID card and with one swipe, you were added to their mailing list. Goodbye age of business cards – hello digital age!

The thing about the Expo Hall that I liked the most was that the vendors weren’t just selling junk or giving away useless information. Every single booth was there for a reason! This was public health theory in its most practical form. Research had been conducted, theories had been developed and from those theories, products were create and now either being given away, raffled off, or sold. This Expo Hall was a place to find the latest demonstration models for those working in nutrition and healthy eating, software for those conducting qualitative interviews, services to help you translate documents or in real-time into over 160 languages, and the vendors that caught my attention most – companies or non-profits related to HIV and Teen Pregnancy prevention.

I filled my conference bag with condom samples and models of IUDs, brochures, and postcards. I spoke to national organizations and groups local to Washington, D.C. I visited the booths of ETR, Select Media, the CDC, and Health and Human Services (HHS). These practical tools that I gathered at the conference now rest on shelves in my office, spread across my desk, and distributed among my coworkers at the SC Campaign. From what I learned and gathered at APHA, we can now bring some of the theories home to South Carolina and some of the practice recommendations home to you at your agency or directly into the places where your kids will learn how to be better prepared for adulthood.

I’m glad I took a stroll through the ‘spaceport’ to collect stamps for my 'passport' with my ‘phone book’ under my arm. It was worth every minute I spent in the Expo Hall at APHA!

-Ryan Wilson, MEd., is a Training Coordinator for the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Contact Ryan at (803) 771-7700 ext. 126.

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