Apr 30, 2010

Is the health conference industry exploiting the public sector?

Why are public sector experts giving up their valuable time to effectively donate their public salaried time and expertise to IIR conferences that cost thousands of dollars to attend?

IIR Conferences has long been in the business of providing conferences, seminars and portentous sounding "summits". Late next month, the third annual Preventive Health Summit is on in Sydney, highlighted on the brochure cover as "Australia’s Longest-Running Preventive Health Event" (no matter than the Public Health Association has been holding annual conferences for more than 30 years). By my count, there are 12 public sector experts -- one misspelt --  on the two-day IIR program, where the cost of attending is $1969, or $1639 if you get in quick for early-bird.  And if you really want to spray your money around, you can purchase the Powerpoints -- a snip at $764.50. With 10 hours of presentations, that's just shy of $200 an hour to absorb the pearls. This year, the topics are focused mostly on the reports of the government's Preventative Health Task Force. There have been dozens of absolutely free consultations and meetings around the country designed to explain the task force reports. Anyone seriously interested in these issue could have  taken up the opportunity or downloaded the three seminal reports free from the web. A two-day IIR  conference on mental health in June has 16 public sector speakers, with none from the private sector.  Cost is $1644. I've received IIR brochures over the years and routinely binned them, wondering about how connected and important an audience would be who would shell out such sums to hear from people you can readily hear at many public sector conferences at a fraction of the price. (I'm on the committee of a three-day Darling Harbour international health conference this year,  where standard registration is $790). Last year I was asked by IIR to stand in at the last minute for a speaker who withdrew. I was given virtual carte blanche to talk about anything on-topic to a room I'd estimate at maybe 60 people. Knowing that it was being run by a for-profit company, I negotiated a $500 fee as I only donate my time to charities, NGOs and government. But calls to three of this year’s participants asking the terms on which they are participating proved interesting. One, when asking for travel was told "As a speaker, you will receive full complimentary access to both days of the conference including all speaker papers, luncheons and networking functions. Speakers are normally asked to cover their own travel expenses" but that they would make an exception with him. Nice of them: they don’t even charge you to hear yourself speak and make them money. However, none I spoke with were getting fees. Some but not all public sector workers are unable to accept fees, making this a nice little honey pot to exploit. But $765 for their powerpoints? I know well several of the people on the program and can't imagine them being unhappy to give their work away free to anyone who wanted it. Putting material free to all on the web is almost standard today. If people want to shell out this sort of money, that's their choice. If there were 60 full fee registrations at $1969, that’s $118,140 through the door. With free speakers, a nice earner. So why are public sector experts giving up their valuable time to effectively donate their public salaried time and expertise to IIR? And why are they giving away their powerpoints to IIR to sell at such an extravagant cost, seeing that IIR plays no role in their content? By comparison with the $1969 + $765 for notes ($2734) IIR charges for two days of listening to speakers,  full-fee enrolment in a Masters of Public Health unit (one eighth of a masters degree taking 12-18 months) in a typical Group of Eight Australian university would cost  $2550, for notes, examination and transcripts. Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney.

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4 thoughts on “Is the health conference industry exploiting the public sector?

  1. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx very much for this piece. IIR and a couple of other commercial providers mount a few extraordinarily expensive conferences on Australian higher education each year, and like the author, I have never understood why either the audience or the presenters bother. Again as with Professor Chapman’s experience of health conferences, almost all the speakers and the audience at higher education conferences are from publicly funded universities. And it is not as if there aren’t perfectly good conferences on the subject mounted by universities and their various associations.

  2. Quitober Challenge

    Interesting reading Simon can you tell me if this is happening in other health sectors?
    I am trying to get to the gig in October for the Tobacco Control conference in Sydney this year
    being unfunded & just receiving NEIS (New Enterprise Incentive Scheme) payments to do my campaign this year, the Quitober Challenge, I have sought special assistance to get there.

    Hey I got to thank you & Mr Mackenzie for your paper on unassisted cessation. Your paper has really influenced the direction I have taken & hopefully more smokers will be empowered by investigating all options for quitting especially the unassisted method.

  3. Rosemary Stanton

    Like Simon, I have received many invitations to these expensive conferences, usually on matters related to food and nutrition.

    I have also been invited to speak on a number of occasions. I did so twice. The first time I negotiated a fee – with difficulty because the organisers thought I should be honoured to be there. The second time (also for a fee, negotiated with difficulty) I agreed to speak because a particular government Minister was to be there and I had wanted to debate a few points with him. He didn’t show “due to urgent government business”. Day wasted!

    The audience was small on both occasions – 40-60 people. Most were involved in marketing foods or were also speaking. Some speakers were sensible enough to leave after their presentation. In my opinion, I would have shown even more sense by not accepting the invitation.

    After making a few complaints, the invitations have stopped.

    Rosemary Stanton

  4. [email protected]

    I only really discovered how these companies work myself this year after I received a phone call from someone ‘interested in the field’ who picked my brains about what is happening in my industry. I was only too happy to talk about it – after all, a big part of my job is to promote the industry. After the call I surprisingly received an email from the person outlining my talk at a conference – she had put together the abstract based on our conversation and I had no idea that she was from a conference company.

    I agreed to speak at the event after they reluctantly agreed to pay for my flights. I went so I could find out who would attend this $2K event. It was so poorly attended that aside from presenters, there was only about 14 people there. I spoke to other presenters at this event and we all had a similar experience. They also continued to advertise that I would be running a workshop, even though I told them I would not. They do this so that they can get contact details for their database. The whole thing was very dishonest. In the lunch break their people started picking the brains of another presenter for what is happening in his field and who they should invite to speak at the next conference.

    This is also bad for our industry because people new to the field attend – thinking they will be getting up to date information and network with the right people. They probably don’t realise until their $2K is spent that they have made a mistake.

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