HESG: an explanation, or, Why our conference is better than yours

Health economists know how to host a good conference. So much so that it inspires adulation on a level better associated with alcohol and comfort food. In fact, it briefly inspired its own meme.

So far I’ve not encountered any other academic fields who do something similar. This seems like a shame, so in the spirit of this evangelism I thought I’d provide a quick overview of what makes the Health Economic Study Group meetings (HESG) great. If you’re a health economist planning to attend your first one, hopefully this will help give you some sense of what to expect.

THE FORMAT

The HESG format works like this:

  1. Submit an abstract, like any other conference. The work you submit is probably at the same stage of completion as any abstract you might submit to another conference, but unlike other conferences, you don’t have to lie to yourself that you’ll have it finished in time, because…

  2. Write up an unfinished bit of work. Your paper should be something that still needs work, since this is a study group, not a traditional conference. The aim is to use HESG to improve your work, rather than just show it off.

  3. Have your paper discussed. This is where the interesting bit comes in. Rather than presenting your own work, another HESG attendee will do it for you. They’ll provide an overview of your work, suggest a few points they think could improve it, and generally kick off…

  4. The discussion! What HESG is all about: 40 minutes of free-form academic jazz. The author is given a couple of minutes to make a few clarifications, and then the floor is open for anyone to add comments, usually of a more general flavour than your standard conference questions. The best discussions are wide ranging and consider the direction of the field as a whole in addition to the contribution of the paper in question. Authors usually come out with ideas for at least four more papers they could write.

THE BENEFITS

This format makes for intense and engaging discussion, but also a very social conference. Attendance is in the range of 100-200, which is small enough to network meaningfully. Talks usually have around 20-40 attendees, which is small enough for everyone to participate.

This means you can get a good sense of who everyone is and what they’re working on, making it easier to strike up conversation over coffee. And later dinner, wine, more wine… The conversation might not be as coherent after the conference dinner, but, well…

The format also encourages genuinely useful feedback. Discussing someone else’s paper is good fun, but it’s also a responsibility. The author will be sitting in front of you, and as with all open peer review, it’s hard to be rude when your name and reputation are on the line, in front of an audience. As a result, feedback is overwhelmingly constructive. Even if no one else has anything useful to say (and very technical papers can suffer a bit for this) someone qualified and willing has just spent 20 minutes providing an in-depth review of your work. How often do you get that during peer review?

Finally, as a participant I find that the format encourages people to speak up - there’s 40 minutes to fill, after all. As a result, even the most junior participants may feel able to contribute. I wonder if this is one of the reasons health economics has such a vocal cohort of early career researchers. I certainly think it bears some responsibility for the field’s active Twitter presence, which I credit with almost single handedly getting me through my first year in academia, lacking as I was in the supportive network you get at larger units.

WHY IT WORKS

Obviously not every format works in every setting. There are a few reasons I can think of for why HESG works so well, and how you might be able to replicate it in other fields:

  1. Keep it small
    As mentioned above, the discussions need to be small enough to allow for a free flowing discussion where everyone can participate.

  2. Emphasise chairing
    The best sessions have a chair whose priority is getting the discussion going and making everyone heard. Tactics for doing this vary, from withholding lunch until everyone has asked a question, to ruthlessly cutting off garrulous professors.

  3. An evolving field
    This is a key one. Before I switched careers, I attended biomedical conferences as a publisher. These conferences were characterised by a strong sense of right and wrong, and the people who were “right” were generally old male professors. Yes, there were disagreements, but they came from a place of “I’m right, and I just need to prove it”. At HESG the discussion is (largely) much less confrontational. This is partly related to the field of health economics, which is young and fast evolving, with many of the rules less set in stone. It’s also unsurprising given so much of work relates to values and preferences. It’s hard to exist in a black and white world when your subject matter is grey. Finally the quality of the papers presented is generally very high. I’ve seen presentations of much weaker work at other conferences, and it makes it much harder to move the conversation on if the authors have made fundamental mistakes. That’s one the organising committee have to consider when reviewing abstracts.

So, if you’re thinking of changing up your conference format, or just wondering what all the fuss is about, hopefully this helped. And if you’re planning to come to HESG in the future (it’s in Bristol in June, just FYI) then welcome! We’re delighted you’re here.

 
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