How to Reduce Health Risks at Meetings

Creating a health security plan is key, according to Jonathan Spero of InHouse Physicians.

Meetings can only come back when attendees feel comfortable enough to attend, points out Jonathan Spero, CEO of InHouse Physicians, an organization that provides medical professionals for corporate meetings and events. According to Spero, every event will need to have a health-security plan, which clearly lays out the steps being taken to protect the health of every meeting stakeholder. That includes a comprehensive approach for preventing the spread of COVID-19 at the event, detecting when attendees are sick and being able to quickly respond and manage an outbreak, should it occur.

We spoke with Spero about how planners should develop health security plans, including what resources they should consult as they try to determine when when it's safe to hold the event and what changes the meetings industry will need to make to recover from this crisis. Below are highlights from that conversation

Reducing the Health Risk at Conferences

Thanks a lot for joining us, Jonathan. Please give us a little bit of background about yourself and InHouse Physicians. 
I founded InHouse Physicians 30 years ago, when I was just finishing my residency. I had practiced both internal medicine and emergency medicine and I kind of fell into an opportunity with Merck Pharmaceuticals, which had connected with me for one of their launch meetings back in 1990. They asked me to start traveling with them, and I started doing that about three months out of the year. And I started thinking that other companies may want a service like this. So the next client was Anheuser Busch, and then I got Apple and then I realized I had a company — and we grew the meetings and events division. 

Jonathan Spero
Jonathan Spero

Now we have a couple hundred health-care providers that work for us throughout the year. We do 500 to 1,000 meeting days a year and have staff that have been working with us for decades — typically either emergency-medicine-based or paramedics that work on ambulances, so they understand how to take care of emergencies. We bring everything we need on-site, for anything from a sore throat to a heart attack. So, if you're diagnosed with bronchitis or you have back pain, we have medications for you. You never have to leave the property.

For the most part, we're taking care of folks who get sick, have a back injury, neck injury or stomach problems. 

Talk about the concept of health security, and why you think that's going to be a crucial part of a meeting plan from now on.
The concept of health security came from the global public health community that was dealing with developing countries where their economies were in shambles because of disease that was unchecked, and poor access to health care and vaccinations and all those types of things that just weren't there for them. 

Now, the meetings industry is facing its own health insecurity crisis — you can't expect to hold a meeting if attendees are scared for their health. So, a health security plan is essential. 

It's really based on three elements: prevention, detection and response. All of the interventions that you want to include in your health security plan will fall into one of those three categories. 

Prevention measures are the things that you're doing to prevent illness at the meeting: sending out communications, encouraging frequent breaks for hand washing, disinfecting surfaces frequently. It's great to see that the hotels are stepping up their game to do this, but it's going to have to be very frequent. You might be disinfecting surfaces in heavily trafficked areas every hour. 

The ability to offer personal protective equipment — procuring or working with a vendor that can procure masks and gloves — is key. Will everyone want to wear a mask? Will they be mandatory? I doubt they will be. But you want to be able to offer those to people who are not quite ready to go to a meeting. 

Another preventative measure is coming up with a strong sick-attendee policy. If your client is internal to your corporation, then you should work with your HR department to come up with a policy that is enforceable and that you can monitor. So if an attendee is sick, they don't come to the meeting; and if you are at the meeting and you're sick, you're going to be asked to go to your room. 

"[Health security] is really based on three elements: Prevention, detection and response. All of the interventions that you want to include in your health security plan will fall into one of those three categories."

As far as detection, people are going to be sick at your meeting, especially this fall and winter. Are they all going to have COVID? Of course not, but some may have a cold, some may have the seasonal flu and a few may have COVID — and you need to plan accordingly. Temperature checks at the beginning of each day, at general sessions and when people register are things that you're going to want to think about. 

Let's say you get a bunch of people with flu-like symptoms. You'll want to know whether they do have COVID-19. That means providing some type of access to rapid COVID-19 testing, which should be readily available. 

What happens if you do find out that someone has COVID-19? They have to be quarantined. Do you have staff that are going to stay behind? What's your protocol? How are you going to handle that? All those things need to be thought through right now, before you start planning for your meeting. 

We've heard from planners who are concerned about trying to make decisions like this. Most are not epidemiologists or medical experts, so where should they get the advice to ensure they're applying the right practices? 
There's a lot of valuable information from the CDC and in the coronavirus section of Johns Hopkins. Also,, from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, offers predictive modeling tools that give you updates as to the present situation and the potential future situation in certain cities in the United States. So, if you're planning a meeting in a given city, you can see what's going on for that destination and how it's predicted to develop. 

We're also working with a lot of our clients and third-party planners and DMCs, and providing consulting services as physicians and nurses who have been dealing with COVID on the front lines and who can offer expertise in pandemic preparedness. 

Do you expect the pandemic to really be a game changer as far as meetings and their relationship to medical professionals? Will we start seeing a health safety officer be a standard part of a meetings team? 
Before this, I would say a minority of meeting professionals had an on-site physician at their larger meetings. Now I think it's going to be the majority for the next year or so. But as with every crisis, our memories fade and we go back to business as usual. I'm hoping that as an industry, we learn lessons from this and incorporate them in the long term; because what the industry needs to accept is that this is something that's going to happen again. We've had two pandemics in the first two decades of the 21st century. That should tell you something. And the meeting industry is very vulnerable to pandemics, as we've seen. I hope they take lessons from this pandemic and say, "What can we do to reduce that vulnerability?" So if there is a future pandemic, we won't have such decimation as we've seen the past few months.

Once meetings return, do you think "health security" will replace "wellness" as a trending concern? 
There is a distinction between health security and wellness. However, when you really look at health security and preventing infection, our greatest preventative tool is our own immune system. And one of the things that affects your immune system is how you manage stress. Another one is sleep. If you're not getting enough sleep, you're at a much higher risk of getting sick from an infection. And then, of course, nutrition is vital. 

"Before this, I would say a minority of meeting professionals had an on-site physician at their larger meetings. Now I think it's going to be the majority for the next year or so."

So, in these ways, wellness now takes on a more important role in health security than we ever would have thought. It's not just helping people be more productive or perform at higher levels, but it may protect them from catching an infection. Meeting attendees need that now more than ever. One of the takeaways I'm hoping is that meeting professionals embrace wellness at meetings more and offer healthier choices and offer yoga and meditation apps that attendees can use while they're at the conference.

There's been a lot of speculation about when we will be ready to meet again. Obviously, there are many unanswered questions; but what's your outlook? 
That's the million-dollar question, right? If you were to ask me right now, I'd say if you're planning a meeting over the October-November-December time frame, it's realistic to think about planning during that time. However, you're definitely going to be at a higher risk than those planning meetings in 2021, particularly in the spring and beyond. 

But what I would do is take a look at the leading indicators — what's going on in the country as a whole. Are the death rates going down? Are the hospitalizations going down? Are the total number of new cases going down? Right now, they are going down in the heavily populated areas, but in the less populated areas such as in parts of the Midwest, the numbers are going up. So that's not a good sign; that's not a sign of stability. We still have hotspots. So right now that means that we're not there yet. The next thing will be to look at the areas where things are stabilizing and see whether people there are going back to work.

If by August we have a majority of the population back to work and at the beginning of September the public schools are open and kids go back to school, those are really good signs. In that case, having a meeting in the fall might be fine — but we just don't know yet. We just don't know.