Reflections on APHA from a First Timer


The American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting, commonly known as APHA, was not the first conference I’ve attended with more than 10,000 other participants.

Just like my first mega-conference in nutrition that was held at the same Boston venue three years ago, I went to APHA with the student-oriented goal to see what’s out there and make a connection or two. The main difference is that this time around, I also went as the thumbs and hashtags behind the HC3 project’s Twitter account. This simple role guided me through the chaos and helped me realize that the benefit in gathering 10,000 professionals under one roof for five days goes far beyond the attendees themselves.

For Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Communication Programs (JHU∙CCP), which presented on six panels and six posters, APHA was an opportunity to highlight the Center’s role and successes in a multitude of public health areas, including malaria and infectious disease, maternal and child health, reproductive health, refugee and immigrant health, tobacco, health systems and technology, and international behavior change communication.

In my duty to capture it all in tweets, I dashed from session to session, appreciating not only the vastness of the convention center but the enormity of the field of public health. The categorization of the field at APHA provides another key opportunity for organizations like JHU∙CCP.  Since sessions are divided by focus area, such as international health, and then further grouped into topics like international health and behavior change communication, they are essentially side-by-side comparisons of similar projects.

In the international health and behavior change session, for example, representatives from USAID India, John Snow, Inc., CONCERN Worldwide and JHU∙CCP summarized the progress and challenges of communication campaigns in India, Madagascar, Burundi and Tanzania.  The value in learning what works from the organizations implementing these parallel projects became evident when the presenters asked as many questions as did the participants. How often can you get an interactive 15-minute summary of the work being done in your specialized corner of the public health world?

In the end, APHA was two very different experiences for me as a first timer. As a student, I was overwhelmed, exhausted, and had difficulty finding my place. The student meeting included presentations that I’ve already been to at Hopkins, the nutrition sessions were far too basic to be useful, and my terrible networking skills were out in full force. But as @HealthCommCap, I was part of the conversation and connected effortlessly with others.  Tweeting kept me engaged when the retweets and replies continued to enrich the discussion long beyond the session. It became clear that the true value of an event like APHA is to the field – and in public health, there could be no greater beneficiary.

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