Sessions bannerAt a time when traveling is inconvenient, in an age where it’s oh so easy to flip open your computer and virtually be anywhere, organizers of the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions get it.

They can’t merely host their annual scientific meeting, even though it’s well established as the premier gathering of cardiovascular thought in the U.S.

They need to put together a program compelling enough for doctors, researchers and other healthcare professionals to set aside four days from their usual professional and personal activities to be present in Chicago.

They need to create an experience in which the value truly comes from being here in person.

Dr. Robert HarringtonThat is exactly the reason Dr. Robert Harrington is smiling.

This is the second Scientific Sessions he’s overseen, and his 10th straight as part of the planning group (known as the Committee on Scientific Sessions Program). He is proud of how the event has adapted and evolved, and prouder still of everything being offered in 2014, especially the tweaks and changes in response to suggestions from convention-goers and AHA staff and volunteer leaders. He’s confident the program will enhance Sessions’ reputation.

“Going to a meeting like Sessions is about more than gathering data,” said Harrington, Chair of the Department of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “It’s about the personal interactions. That’s where ideas come from. You ask a question or probe a data point or you hear someone make a comment and the light bulb goes off for you. We want to make sure that human element remains a vibrant part of this conference.

“What we hear over and over is, `Talk to us. Engage us.’ Sessions is more than slides and people making presentations. People want to hear people talking about their areas of expertise. They want to ask questions. They want to hear how something changes their field. As the planning committee, these are things we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.”

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Nearly 20,000 attendees from more than 100 countries will gather here Sunday through Wednesday. Another 1.5 million professional attendees are expected to be involved virtually, absorbing groundbreaking insights, lectures from prestigious speakers and thought-provoking discussions about basic, translational, clinical and population science.

Harrington’s coordinating skills emerge as he breaks down this sprawling event. Asked about areas of emphasis of this year’s event, he offered four points. Asked for examples of Sessions’ evolution in this year’s program, he offered three examples. The break-it-down approach makes sense considering the challenge of getting a grip on all the science packed into this event:

  • More than 5,000 presentations.
  • More than 4,000 abstract presentations of original research.
  • 1,000 invited faculty.
  • A Science and Technology Hall open from Sunday to Tuesday packed with more than 200 exhibitors showcasing the latest cardiovascular technology and resources.

With programming spread across 26 programming tracks, there is clearly plenty for everyone. So let’s begin our dive into the Sessions agenda by examining four areas of emphasis laid out by Harrington.

The first area is all about the Early Career professional.

The Early Career Lounge that was introduced last year is being expanded this year, setting the stage for more networking opportunities. For a second year, there’s an Early Career Day subcommittee of the planning group led by a young faculty member. This fresh voice has helped shape what offerings are most sought by their peers. An Early Career reception designed to highlight networking and connections Saturday continues to grow as well.

“Sessions has always had an emphasis on young people, but in the last couple of years, we’ve really stepped this up,” Harrington said. “Making Sessions better for them is very, very important to me. But I’ve found that others are equally passionate about it.”

A second area is embedding meetings within meetings. This includes continuing and improving the Resuscitation Science Symposium and the Cardiovascular and Stroke Nursing Clinical Symposium that have long been part of the event, plus a Global Congress on Big Data and – for the first time – a sub-specialty meeting, which will be devoted to arrhythmias.

“ReSS has been embedded for a long time and is very popular, but what we’re doing now is linking that meeting – which takes place Saturday and Sunday – to other activities that take place within the larger meeting,” Harrington said. “We’ve been growing our nursing meeting the last few years, and now we have a dedicated nursing track. We’re very pleased to highlight advances in nursing science in this way in addition to embedding these advances in the main program.”

Each year, Sessions offers a congress addressing a topic that is relevant to professionals from around the world. Last year, it was physical education and cardiovascular disease. This year’s aim is the timely topic of Big Data in cardiovascular science, with programs running daily Saturday to Tuesday.

“Big Data has become a fairly ubiquitous phase in society, so we’re just making it focused on cardiovascular medicine and science,” Harrington said. “We have some amazing technology sessions, Basic Cardiovascular Sciences sessions, Clinical Research sessions … pretty much everything surrounding Big Data. There are some really interesting topics around mobile tech, for example. There’s also e-health and health in the cloud. These are all things we never thought of having at Sessions three, four years ago.”

The Arrhythmia Research Summit is quite a new wrinkle, as it includes both a four-day meeting (Sunday through Wednesday) and a one-day event (Wednesday). Former AHA President Gordon Tomaselli and other leaders in electrophysiology will play key roles in sessions devoted to cutting-edge research and therapeutic innovation.

Harrington’s third area of emphasis is the crux of the in-person experience: networking.

Time spent meeting colleagues and renewing acquaintances is priceless. Harrington has hired many people directly and indirectly through contacts forged via Sessions. He tapped that same network for insight and opinions before his own decision to leave his previous position as the director of the Duke Clinical Research Institute for Stanford.

By their very nature, all meetings lend themselves to making connections. Still, it helps when the planners have baked such encounters into their plans. This goes well beyond the basic step of having lounges designated for Early Career professionals, FAHAs and speakers.

“We’ve tried to collocate communities within McCormick Place so you’re more likely to bump into people who share your interests – heart failure near EP near genomics near imaging – to help build that sense of community around the topic,” Harrington said. “At a meeting with nearly 20,000 people, we want you to feel as if you’re at a meeting with 500 to 2,000 of your closest friends. We’re trying to accommodate both experiences, a large meeting and a small one. We want everyone to feel that Sessions is about them and their interests.”

The fourth area is Basic Cardiovascular Sciences. The anchor is a Monday night event focused on the Best of Basic Sciences and the Best of Basic Sciences posters. There also will be Late-Breaking Basic Sciences abstracts and a best of Basic Sciences abstracts.

“It is important to acknowledge that AHA is about science,” Harrington said. “And we want to engage people. This Monday evening reception will be another great opportunity to network and mingle all while viewing and discussing some of the hottest science from the large basic science community within AHA.”

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Now, about that evolution of the Sessions agenda.

With Harrington stepping aside after a decade of planning, this could be viewed as the legacy of his tenure. So it’s little wonder that the first of the three items he noted was the expansion of opportunities for Early Career professionals.

Second is a new way of blending scientific advancement and networking. This also fits the ya-gotta-be-there component, with the “there” being the Poster Hall.

“Of all the original abstracts submitted, 90 percent are now being presented as posters,” Harrington said. “Everyone tells us they would like more engagement, more interaction, and we see the Poster Hall as a great forum to do that. We’ve worked to arrange the room in ways that drive people together.”

In the Poster Hall last year, organizers successfully introduced “The Poster Professor,” a way for a presenter to get quality feedback from a one-on-one visit with a senior member of their field. It was so well received that it’s back and expanded this year, with a bevy of senior volunteers examining between 10 and 20 posters.

“They’ve been told that their `job’ is to engage that presenter in a conversation about their poster, their science,” Harrington said. “The goal is to engage a young person and get them involved in what I’ll call the culture of science – become accustomed to questions, criticism – and giving them a chance to show off a bit. They’ve worked hard, they deserve it. We also have worked hard on this concept. I think it’s something that, when I look back on my tenure, I’ll say it’s one of the best things we did.”

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We’ve still only scratched the surface of all the offerings in this year’s agenda. Here is a quick rundown of more highlights:

  • Opening SessionAt noon Sunday, AHA President Elliott Antman will give his Presidential Address. Dr. Antman will focus on “Saving and Improving Lives in the Information Age.” This will be followed by presentation of a series of awards and honors to leaders in our field.
  • Late-Breaking Clinical Trials and Clinical Science Special ReportsLate-Breaking Clinical Trials are always among the most newsworthy elements of Sessions, and this year will be no exception. The proliferation in submissions over the last five years prompted organizers to offer a secondary outlet, the Clinical Science Special Reports. They come from the same pool of submissions as the Late-Breakers, and are rigorously peer-reviewed and winnowed before being chosen.Some of these presentations will have new twists, all fitting the overarching theme of “being here.”Since many presentations are going to appear in peer-reviewed literature, a recitation of the facts is somewhat redundant. The 15-minute presentation is being scaled back to about nine, with a few minutes for a commentary, then a panel discussion and a questions-and-answers session.

    “This makes it more interactive, sort of poking and prodding to get to the core issues,” Harrington said. “We’re trying to make this something that is going to be helpful, useful, important to attendees.”

    The other tweak is that some sessions featuring multiple trials within similar realms, a single commentator will put it all into perspective, rather than pausing to discuss each.

  • Learning At The MoviesSticking with our theme, it only makes sense that this offering – probably the most interactive of all on the Sessions agenda – is being expanded.“Learning At The Movies” began in 2012, fittingly enough in Los Angeles, with the showing of taped cases. Videos can be stopped for discussion points, with a moderator or a panel discussing what’s already happened and what could/should happen next.In an effort to focus more on daily clinical practice issues, Harrington said there will be a “bigger, broader” rollout with sessions devoted to the catheterization lab, electrophysiology lab and the operating room, interventional cardiology, structural heart disease, coronary heart disease and more.

    “We have a diverse set of presenters, moderators and panelists from around the globe,” Harrington said.

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As the tables and chairs were being stacked following the 2013 Sessions in Dallas, plans for this year’s event already were underway.

Like all major gatherings, organizers did an immediate debrief and self-critique, then gathered feedback from a variety of sources. Then came the effort of putting those lessons into action. This included a small group of organizers meeting in Chicago for two days in December, then the entire planning committee met in January. The icing on the cake was a Sessions Summit held early in the summer.

The secret sauce for Sessions planners is the pride that comes with carrying on the legacy of this conference.

“Everyone is creative, energetic and committed to making Sessions great,” Harrington said.

Scientific Sessions began in 1925 – the year after the American Heart Association was founded – and has run continuously ever since, save for a hiatus during World War II. Sessions was last held in Chicago in 2010. (Historic note: The AHA was founded in Chicago; six doctors met at the Drake Hotel on June 10, 1924, and signed the papers launching the organization based on the belief that scientific research could lead the way to better treatment, prevention and ultimately a cure.)

Harrington said he’s excited about this year’s host city. Having been through previous Sessions in Chicago when it was bitterly cold, he knows weather is unlikely to affect anything. And he knows that being downtown means endless opportunities to take networking into an endless array of venues.

“With hotels up and down Michigan Avenue, attendees have a chance to walk around and experience the fabric of the city,” he said. “It also helps that for people coming from around the world, they can get here relatively easily, seldom in more than one stop. All in all, I think Chicago handles us very, very well.”

When Sessions ends, so will Harrington’s tenure on the planning committee. It is bittersweet as he leaves behind a labor of love, but he knows it’s time for others to have their turn – such as Frank Sellke, MD, FAHA, the Vice Chair of CSSP who will become to lead planner for 2015 in Orlando and 2016 in New Orleans.

“Scientific Sessions brings together very diverse people – from different backgrounds, different scientific interests, different cultures – into one place every November to discuss what we’re all thinking about, which is how to better understand cardiovascular health and diseases and to take better care of patients, or prevent people from becoming patients,” Harrington said. “I really believe passionately that we’ve put together a great forum and venue to do that.”