The American Association of Neurological Surgeons’ 78th Annual Meeting, held May 1–5 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, was the first medical meeting in North America to turn over the delivery of all of its content to the iPod touch. And, according to AANS Executive Director Thomas A. Marshall, it was “a huge hit for the 3,383 medical attendees, from the highly techno savvy medical students to veteran neurosurgeons unaccustomed to using such devices.” And no wonder: They not only didn’t have to lug around the usual heavy program book, but they also got to keep the iPod after the meeting.

But it wasn’t the easiest of feats to pull off, according to AANS Deputy Executive Director Ronald W. Engelbreit, the iPod touch project leader. The organization worked with Parliant, an Ottawa, Ont.–based developer to design a customized app that could update the program on the fly; allow attendees to design their own schedule at the conference; and help attendees find a breakfast seminar, practical clinic, oral presentation, or electronic poster within the program with an interactive search tool. Members also could access AANS products through the iPods, including an AANS clinical guidelines summary; maps of the convention center, including the exhibit hall and individual rooms; and bios/photos of all the award winners.

AANS also had to create and download a huge amount of content onto 3,500 devices, and coordinate with the convention center to ensure that the facility could provide access to the necessary bandwidth.

The customized iPod touch platform also allowed participants to send messages to one another, and enabled exhibitors to change their usual promotional door drops to purchased e-messages. According to AANS, 40 messages with company banners were sent out over the course of four days. While most messages were sent to all medical attendees, there was the potential to target nearly 50 different groups based on registration and subspecialty categories. In addition, companies purchased full-screen ads or banner ads that rotated on the device. While AANS’ director of communications Betsy van Die couldn’t divulge whether or not the organization broke even on the project, she did quote the association president as saying in a radio interview that, though it was more expensive than using paper, there were some savings in not having to print the program book.

While the organization did a lot of legwork ahead of time to get all potential attendees up to speed on the technology with six months of pre-show tutorials and marketing messages, AANS also provided continuously streaming tutorials during the show. In addition, it tagged what it calls “Marshals”—medical students and residents who have always volunteered at its meetings—to be iPod helpers. Wearing chartreuse armbands to make them easy to locate, the Marshals were scattered throughout the convention center, as well as being there to help when attendees first picked up their devices. If anyone had trouble with the app, it was available in the iTunes store for re-downloading.

Van Die says the feedback from members includes adding more bells and whistles for next year. “Philadelphia proved that well-orchestrated technology can deliver stellar member education and benefits in new and meaningful ways,” said Marshall, adding that “We will be pushing the technology envelope” as AANS begins preparing for its 79th Annual Meeting in Denver, scheduled for April 9–13, 2011.

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