5 ways the World Diabetes Congress can better engage consumers


I’ve been to a lot of conferences in work and volunteer roles. As an attendee, an organiser and a speaker. I’ve seen good conferences, bad conferences, and everything in between.

Attending three days of the World Diabetes Congress in Melbourne as a “consumer” was a different and enjoyable experience. It was brilliant to have this global congress in my backyard of Melbourne, and to have the opportunity to attend purely as a interested consumer.

The Congress has previously been targeted at healthcare professionals, researchers, scientists, policy makers, government representatives and product/pharmaceutical companies. I understand that in recognition of the active, and growing, diabetes consumer lobby, this was the first time people with diabetes have been able to attend the conference with a specific consumer registration.

It’s also common sense.

However, to improve the overall experience for people with diabetes, I think there are five clear opportunities for the World Diabetes Congress to better engage with consumers in Vancouver 2015. This is not intended as a critique, but just some thoughts based on my experience.

1. Consumer only, consumer oriented sessions

One of the reasons I turned to social media as a tool to support my diabetes management was to learn more about how other people live with diabetes – through blogs and twitter in particular. Take that concept, and apply it to a global in-person experience like a World Diabetes Congress, and there is a massive opportunity to provide a great experience for consumers. You just need to Google “diabetes blogs” to uncover thousands of great stories about how people live with diabetes, their thoughts on government policy and ways that technology can better suit our needs – certainly enough to construct three days worth of entertaining and informative sessions.

I think there was an attempt to do this through the “Living with Diabetes” stream of the Congress, however there were some speakers in this stream talking about how other people –  their patients, their communities or their populations – live with diabetes, as opposed to them personally. It should come as no surprise that Kerri’s session about Living with diabetes in a busy world” was one of the busiest I attended, as it focused purely on life before and life with, diabetes.

Consumer only sessions would encourage more people living with diabetes to attend, and feel like an active participant in the Congress, rather than just a topic of conversation. Granted, I understand the notion that if the session was closed off to other delegates, we are missing the opportunity to showcase the realities of living with diabetes, but I think this needs to be weighed up with the opportunity to form connections with others, and to discuss matters of shared importance from a mutually shared playing field.

2. Better integration of social media

So, there was a hashtag…#WDC2013. The hashtag was pretty well utilised, particularly by consumers discussing the key takeaway messages they took from some sessions (not to mention organise coordinated coffee runs). But social media could have been better integrated into the congress to provide opportunities for consumers and others, to have discussions online, and potentially then in person.

How about:

  • providing twitter walls in rooms to provide a live demonstration of how people with diabetes use twitter to discuss important issues;
  • allowing people to ask questions or provide feedback in-session via twitter;
  • offering a twitter masterclass for people wanting to know more about social media and twitter for conferences on the morning of the first congress day;
  • providing twitter handles for speakers in the program;
  • including best practice guidelines of how to use the hashtag in the congress bag; or
  • listing twitter usernames on nametags.

It’s no secret that diabetes consumers are increasingly using twitter to engage with other people with diabetes, product companies and diabetes organisations. We want to feel involved, and perhaps more importantly, have the opportunity to be involved. Social media can do this if properly integrated into the congress, and may also provide the non-social media user, or even the social media cynic, with a better appreciation of why and how we do use it for positive purposes.

3. Re-design of the exhibition hall

Consumers were restricted access from the exhibition hall, containing product companies, charities, support organisations, government agencies and other businesses.

The back of the consumer pass read as follows:

 Following Australian legislation (Therapeutic Goods Act 1989; Therapeutic Goods regulation 1990 and Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code) prescription medicines can only be advertised to health professionals; therefore the special Australian consumer day rate does not permit you to access the commercial trade display in bays 11 to 16 in the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. Non-compliance will result in exemption from the conference.

The irony was, of course, that people with diabetes were able to access the exhibition hall if they were an exhibitor, part of the IDF Young Leaders Program or if they bought a different form of registration. Further, consumers were allowed access into the Diabetes Cafe, that provided a clear view of the Exhibition Hall – including the names of some prescription medicines. It all felt a bit like The Simpsons episode with the velvet rope. More importantly, there were a number of organisations in that exhibition hall that were not promoting prescription medicines. JDRF, Diabetes Counselling Online, the Type 1 Diabetes Network and Diabetes Australia, just to name a few. Not to mention the 5 different companies offering on-the-spot HbA1c testing.

Sure, it is important to follow regulations within legislation, but it is equally important to consider how some creativity can be utilised to ensure consumers do not feel like they are. The Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre is a big place and it would be undeniably simple to separate the room into two sections – one including prescription medicines, and one without. Problem solved.

This would provide a win for consumers – to learn more about what diabetes companies and organisations are working on, but also a win for product companies and diabetes organisations to promote their work, products (prescription medicines aside) and offerings to consumers.

Besides, consumers love freebies.

4. Improved use of language

Sure, the IDF can’t control or mandate the use of language by speakers at the congress, but if the IDF doesn’t set the standard of best-practice language in a setting like this Congress, then who will?

I know many consumers were frustrated with the use of words like compliance and sufferer, or sessions where the implication – intended or otherwise – was that some people with diabetes were somehow deviating from a simple formula. This language shows a misunderstanding of how people perceive their diabetes and how we would like to be talked to and talked about.

The establishment and recommendation of guidelines for language by presenters would make consumers feel more comfortable in sessions. Diabetes Australia has made a good start to this through the development of a Language Position Statement, and the application of these guidelines would support a shared understanding of the lived experience.

5. Provision of a relaxed space for consumers to chat

There was some great sessions at WDC 2013, but like any Congress, it was as much about the sessions as it was the discussions that happen in the breaks. The difference is, that consumers are not necessarily networking with a professional intent in mind, but more to draw upon the benefits of peer support. 

Ultimately, my highlight of the congress was catching up with friends, both old and new, that live with diabetes, but I was fortunate to know a number of people before attending the event. So I was thinking, if I was a consumer attending without knowing anyone, what would support me to meet people with diabetes. Well – probably a designated relaxed space for consumers to come together, grab a coffee and have a chat. Not everyone feels comfortable in a “support group” – myself included, but many people just love having a chat to someone else that understands.

Research is continually showing that peer support is a positive influence on people living with diabetes but unfortunately, these experiences usually feel few and far between. If the World Diabetes Congress is to really hit the mark for diabetes consumers, it needs to both provide sessions that are relevant and suitable, but also capitalise on the fact that a range of consumers are in the one place at the one time.

The success of a social event on the Tuesday night demonstrates the need to support consumer interaction. Over thirty people got together on Tuesday night to catch up, have a drink, meet new people and participate in a live #OzDoc tweet chat. Imagine the possibilities if this was truly embedded in the Congress?

So whilst participating in a Congress can be quite exhausting, engagement with other people with diabetes can be energizing. And if you haven’t noticed the trend by now – many people with diabetes like talking to other people with diabetes.

Also, there were some sessions that highlighted how fortunate Australia is to have a health system that for the most part, looks after us folk with diabetes. The disparity between countries like Australia and many other countries in terms of access to healthcare, insulin and even basic diabetes management support is stark. Georgie has covered some of these issues.

To solve these issues takes significant political commitment, ingenuity and of course, money. I’d like to see the funds raised from consumer registrations collected and utilised to support people with diabetes in developing countries, or countries struck by natural disaster, or to a program like Life For A Child. It may not be a lot of money, but I think it’s the right thing to do from a social responsibility perspective.

So, there you have it. A few thoughts based on my experiences as to how consumers can be better catered for in the World Diabetes Congress. I enjoyed my experience at the Congress, but I think consumers can ask for, and expect more from the World Diabetes Congress in future iterations.

If you went to WDC2013, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Alternatively – if you decided not to attend as a person with diabetes, I’d love to hear why.

Good luck Vancouver!

Disclaimer: I funded my attendance for day 1 of the Congress, however I was also there as a representative of the Type 1 Diabetes Network. I attended days 2 and 3 of the Congress as part of the Diabetes Australia Young Leaders Program, however after three massive days, I don’t feel very young! .