The ICN Congress is one of the largest worldwide gatherings of nurses and this, the 25th event, has just finished in Melbourne, Australia.

ICN Melbourne 2013So, how was it? Was it a model Nursing Conference, a flagship event that other conferences will measure themselves against?  I’m not sure that ICN will be able to tell you as there was no evaluation form available and seemingly no other attempt to capture participant feedback. The conspiracy theorists among you may make of that omission what you will.

Like almost every other conference, people’s general impression seemed to be that it was like the proverbial ‘curate’s egg’.  Good in parts with some outstanding ideas and presentations rising far above some truly pedestrian and underwhelming attempts.

I spent most of my time at the event, from Sunday to Wednesday, not only attending the sessions but purposely ‘working the conference’; mixing with delegates and asking them how they were enjoying the conference and what were their highs and lows.  (In between taking photographs and trying to provide a live update via Twitter of course).

Here are my personal observations and thoughts, informed by these discussions, in fairly random order.

If you don’t understand the significance and importance of food and drink, you don’t understand conferencing.

As this was my first ICN Conference I hadn’t grasped the organisational mean-spiritedness that manifested in there being no tea/coffee or lunch provided as part of the registration fee.

I couldn’t believe that you would ‘welcome’ all of these visitors to your country and conference and not think it important to give people a cuppa and a bit of lunch.  Imagine, nurses not appreciating the symbolic power of a cup of tea!

I asked a poor little volunteer on the Sunday about this and she just shook her head, apologised and said that I was about the 20th person who’d asked so far.  She said that they’d been told to tell people that this lack of morning tea or lunch was ‘an ICN tradition’.  No, this is not a ‘tradition’, it is a conscious financial decision to NOT provide basic hospitality to your guests who may have paid between $200 and $1249 for registration.  Few would expect to sit down to a 3 course meal for 4000 but providing some morning tea and a sandwich/buffet lunch is easy. Hell, an Aussie party pie and tomato sauce would have been welcome.  Not to do this for our guests was both shameful and embarrassing.

Socially, this cut down the extent and opportunities for networking and just ‘chatting together’ among delegates. Everyone knows that standing and sitting around during lunch is one of the premiere ‘get together’ opportunities at a conference.  At ICN, people tended to head off to various places outside of the venue looking for somewhere to have lunch. This was also not a cheap option for delegates as many of the venues around the convention centre are not noted for their ‘competitive prices’.  ($12 for a pint anyone?)

Simply having thousands of nurses from hundreds of countries in the one giant space does not guarantee engagement, networking and interaction.  You need to help create the opportunities for this to happen.  I wasn’t convinced that this had been done well.

Where were the Programme Innovations?

Anyone looking for innovation and creative thinking in the programming would have been sorely disappointed.  It was the usual, bog standard formula of Plenaries, concurrent papers and posters. Something might have been labelled a ‘workshop’ but basically, someone talking and the others listening was pretty much the order of the day.  I did miss the Student Assembly on the Saturday which my colleagues Laurie Bickhoff said was excellent.

As so often happens with this format, there tends to be little time for questions and discussion as people, perhaps naturally, want to fill their slot with talk.

Many people I spoke to thought that it was a mistake to have the full programme available only at registration when you collected your conference bag.  This was a huge programme, packed with presentations and posters and it would have helped to have this some weeks in advance so that people could plan their ‘attendance strategy’.

And as if to prove again that there are no such things as ‘little things’ at a conference, several people commented to me that they wished there had been a notepad and pen in their bag!  Missed sponsor opportunity there I think.

(As a ‘PS’ to the Programme………Someone asked me why the world’s leading International Nursing Conference would have four Plenary sessions where two of them were from medics.  Maybe we’re just incredibly good at ‘playing nicely together’ with our colleagues.)

The Amazing Posters

Posters are too often deemed to be the poor relations of conference world.  I have heard people so miffed that their abstract was accepted “only” as a poster rather than as a concurrent paper that they have refused to attend the conference.  What fools.

In contrast with almost all of the paper presentations I attended, the poster sessions were absolutely humming with activity and discussion.  Poster people were there, pulling people into their poster, engaging them, explaining and discussing at a level that made them one of the ‘hits’ of the conference for me.

Social Media at the conference

Given that the ICN seemed to have had almost no social media ‘nous’ about the conference, it was wonderful that so many ‘tweeps’ out there provided commentary, updates, key points, questions and dialogue all through the event. It’s a pity that there was no early notification of a single twitter hashtag.  By the time someone from ICN mentioned from the podium that the twitter hashtag was ICN2013, many of us were already tweeting using #ICNAus2013.  Who knows, with a unified hashtag we may even have trended! Given that the Koreans are much more tech-savvy, something makes me think that the next ICN Congress in Korea will have a significantly greater SoMe and technological engagement presence, provided that the ICN bureaucracy doesn’t get in the way.

The ‘human face’ of the conference

A huge gathering like this needs a human face and a personal touch and here, the volunteers and conference centre staff were excellent, always helpful, obliging and looking as if they were enjoying their work.  They did a terrific job.

Finding the ‘human face’ of ICN was a lot harder, unless you were watching the podium and stage.  At most conferences the ‘Conference Committee’ will be introduced, will have a special ID badge and will be ‘out there’, tirelessly ‘working the conference’.  I’m not sure that the ICN even had such a committee at the conference. I wondered if this was actually a very clever experiential learning exercise on ICN’s part to convey the sense of what’s happening in some ward and units where nobody really knows who’s in charge?

Sponsors and Exhibitors

A big thanks to all of the exhibitors as they make a huge contribution to any conference, and not only via the free pens!!

Standout stands were:

Korean Nurses Association: for the great job they did in promoting the next ICN Congress. Costumes were fabulous.

ACN: For combining info with great fun.  You can never have too many free koalas to give away and having the Man from Snowy River and a couple of giant koalas at your stall guarantees interest and endless photo-ops.

Taiwan Nurses Association: Fantastic stand that absolutely buzzed with excitement all through the conference.  In addition, the Taiwan contribution to the posters and presentations was amazing. For a little country, Taiwan’s nurses sure punch well above their weight.

Sanofi Pasteur:  The ‘vaccination stand’ had the best business and promotion idea of all by having a coffee machine and barista at their stall.  The queues of people looking for a free cup of coffee guaranteed a constant line of delegates for them to engage with. Gold star marketing badge to them.

James Cook University: Best social media engagement of any of the stands.  A hive of tweeting activity.

My condolences to the exhibitors who were allocated the first floor positions.  This was a virtual ‘dead zone’ compared to the traffic and activity up on the second floor.  Having all of the posters at the back of the room on the second floor almost guaranteed that most people would pass through the stalls en route to see the posters.  In contrast, there was little reason to explore the first floor at all.  Someone wasn’t thinking about their exhibitors as they should have been.

Other Highs and Lows

Highlight presentations:

Leslie Mancuso from JHPIEGO. Her Plenary on women ‘holding up half the sky’ was impassioned, pragmatic, politically challenging, absolutely imbued with nursing power and potential and a great example of ‘how to present’. If every nurse could talk abut their ward, unit or service like this our collective ‘force to be reckoned with’ score would soar.

The New Gen Nurses group from the ACN.  Wow.  If these ‘new’ nurses are typical, then we need have no worries as to who we are passing the Nursing baton on to. Articulate, intelligent, politically savvy and turning up well prepared to present.  What an absolute credit to nursing, to themselves and to their mentors. Get beside them or get out of their way.

Anne Marie Rafferty gave a wonderfully global and yet personal overview of the work and continuing importance of the great Virginia Henderson. It struck me yet again just how ‘timeless’ and relevant Henderson’s work and thinking are.  You might guess that I am something of a ‘fan’ of VH.  That’s an understatement and so it was a joy to see her memory honoured and ‘updated’ so thoughtfully and intelligently by Anne Marie.

Theresa O’Keefe, nursing head of a vascular unit at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane gave what for me was one of the standout papers of the conference.  A truly wonderful exploration of “basic nursing care” (and we can argue about the term later), its place in clinical practice and overall care, the threats that it faces, how to assess and evaluate it honestly in a busy clinical ‘world’ and what to do to improve it on the back of such a practice-focused evaluation. Her presentation was an object lesson in clarity, purpose, knowing your topic and ‘practice & preparation’.  I sat through several sub-undergraduate presentations from bumbling academics with their endless ‘bullet points’ masquerading as substance and Theresa simply wiped the floor with them.

The Norwegian and Danish Nurses for their presentations describing their positive efforts to creatively improve the image and public understanding of Nursing.  Their visual and photographic approaches ticked all of my boxes and provided a much-needed counterpoint to the self-pitying whinging so often heard in nursing that ‘the meeja’ are not nice enough to us.

So many great posters….


The Bang & Olufsen Noise Canceling Headphones Award for ‘session you wish you had avoided’

You don’t really expect me to name this one do you?  Those ‘cans’ would have been a Godsend though.

The Basil Fawlty ‘Don’t mention the war’ Award

This goes to ICN for studiously avoiding any mention of the crisis in nursing and care or the entire pre and post ‘Francis Report’ landscape that has so utterly preoccupied nursing (and not only in the UK) for the last three or four years.  One or two brave presenters acknowledged the Elephant in the room and I was especially interested in the RCN comissioned study reported by Linda Prescott-Clements from Northumbria regarding ‘professional and unprofessional behaviours’.

Exploring this crisis could have been done under the overall theme of ‘equity and access’ and the ICN should have had the courage and confidence to take the issue on.

My overall impressions?  This was my first ICN Congress and while I enjoyed much of it, it was by no means one of the better conferences I have ever attended. I’d have to be convinced by some pretty amazing benefits to head off to Korea in 4 years time.

You can view my photo-diary of the Congress here on Flickr and also check out the great Meta4RN’s synthesis of the Social Media dimensuions of the event here:

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