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Annual Yale Healthcare Conference to Focus on COVID-19

With their plans thrown into disarray by COVID-19, students organizers shifted the annual conference to a virtual format and gave it a new focus: the pandemic itself.

By Karen Guzman

Students from the Yale School of Management and Yale’s health professional schools spent months assembling the annual Yale Healthcare Conference, which draws practitioners and policymakers from across the country every April. Then the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of all on-campus events and threw their plans into disarray.

But student leaders rallied, deciding that the conference was just too critical to forego this year.

“COVID-19 has thrown the entire world for a loop,” said conference co-chair Alexandra Knopf ’20, a student at Yale School of Public Health (YSPH). “We’re all struck by what an important time it is to be in healthcare and public health.”

The students decided to take the conference online and shift its focus, from the original theme of healthcare affordability to “COVID-19: Responding to a Public Health Crisis.” It will take place on April 17.

“The need for conversation and togetherness during this uncertain time motivated us to refocus and provide a platform dedicated to engaging in dialog surrounding the role of public health and management in times of crisis,” Knopf said.

Every year, students come together from across Yale to plan and manage the conference. Jenne Lahov, a student in the School of Nursing, and Gus Roman ’20, who is pursuing joint degrees at Yale SOM and YSPH, are also serving as co-chairs this year. The co-chairs manage a 12-student team, under the guidance of an advisory board and advisor Howard Forman, professor of radiology, economics, public health, and management, and director of the MBA for Executives healthcare curriculum.

“In the face of COVID-19, we were thrown back to square one in the blink of an eye,” said Lahov. “Though it was definitely a challenge to rebrand as quickly as we did, I think it was a great public health PR exercise. We’re sparking lots of excitement about our content.”

Roman led efforts to establish a networking component for the online event. Networking—usually in person—is a major conference draw every year.

“We’re rolling out a Slack channel with structured channels to facilitate digital networking among our healthcare students and professionals,” Roman said. “I think we’re all going to come out of this stronger, and much more Zoom-savvy.”

Conference leaders first considered taking the event online during an advisory board meeting in early March, while the threat of COVID-19 was growing. “We started coming up with a Plan B” at that time, Forman said. “The students scrambled and figured out a game plan.”

Going online hasn’t hurt conference attendance, Forman said. Registrations—available at a reduced price—are brisk; the virtual format is permitting more individuals, and those at greater distances, to attend.

“We’re doing something good for the country and good for public health,” Forman said. “This is a demonstration of resiliency by our students, showing our ability to be flexible and to adapt, especially in the face of crisis. It’s what SOM and YSPH are all about.”

The conference agenda includes three keynote speakers. Vivek Murthy ’03, former U.S. Surgeon General and a joint-degree graduate of Yale SOM and the Yale School of Medicine, will give an address titled “Loneliness and Social Distancing: The Human Impact of Flattening the Curve.” All conference attendees will be mailed advance copies of Murthy’s soon-to-be-published book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.

“I am very excited to offer all attendees an advance copy,” Knopf said. “The book is incredibly timely and relevant.”

Other speakers include Katherine Baicker, dean and Emmett Dedmond Professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, and Dan Diamond, author, host and reporter at Politico Pulse.

Breakout panels will focus on aspects of the COVID-19 crisis. They include “Emergency Preparedness: Community Responses to Global Pandemics,” “Fake News: Information Portrayal and Dissemination in a Time of Crisis,” and “Footing the Bill: Funding and Sustaining Pandemic Responses.”

The Yale Healthcare Conference 2020 is on Friday, April 17, at 11 a.m. Visit the conference website to register.