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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 65  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 329-331  

Organizing the first-ever virtual IPHACON – What did we learn?

1 Professor and Head, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, JIPMER, Organising Secretary, IPHACON 2021, Puducherry, India
2 Professor (Senior Scale), Department of Preventive & Social Medicine, JIPMER, Organising Chairperson, IPHACON 2021, Puducherry, India

Date of Submission15-Nov-2021
Date of Decision20-Nov-2021
Date of Acceptance23-Nov-2021
Date of Web Publication29-Dec-2021

Correspondence Address:
Sitanshu Sekhar Kar
Professor and Head, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, JIPMER, Organising Secretary, IPHACON 2021, Puducherry
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijph.ijph_2050_21

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How to cite this article:
Kar SS, Roy G. Organizing the first-ever virtual IPHACON – What did we learn?. Indian J Public Health 2021;65:329-31

How to cite this URL:
Kar SS, Roy G. Organizing the first-ever virtual IPHACON – What did we learn?. Indian J Public Health [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Nov 27];65:329-31. Available from:

Professional societies conduct scientific meetings to achieve multiple objectives – knowledge exchange, capacity building, dissemination of research findings, and providing a platform for networking among various stakeholders. The Indian Public Health Association (IPHA), with more than 8500 members, has been one of the oldest and largest professional health organizations working for the cause of public health in India since 1956. The mission of this association is to protect and promote the health of the people of India by facilitating the exchange of information, research, advocating policies, programs, and practices that improve public health. One of the objectives is to conduct an annual conference of members of the association and the public health profession in general.

   The Event Top

The 65th Annual National Conference of IPHA (IPHACON 2021) was planned and conducted at a critical juncture when the global community was fighting a war against the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection. There was an awakening among the scientific and political community on the need to strengthen public health infrastructure. Although COVID-19 disease exposed the lacunae of the public health system and had devastated consequences on the health and economy of countries, it taught us many new ways of carrying out our business. One of the learnings from the pandemic was the way we conducted our conferences or meetings. The format of scientific conferences has not meaningfully changed in centuries. The essence of conferences today – with speakers presenting their results to an audience sitting before them – closely resembles that of the meetings of the Royal Society in 1660.[1] But in recent times, online meetings/conferences were the new norm due to SARS-CoV-2 infection and travel restrictions imposed by various governments.

We, the organizing team of the Pondicherry IPHA State Branch and the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, and JIPMER International School of Public Health, Puducherry, undertook the challenge of organizing the event in an online mode – the first-ever virtual conference of the IPHA. In this piece, we summarize our experience of conducting the virtual conference, and the lessons learned.

   Conference Structure Top

Website and registration

One of the essential components of organizing a virtual conference is to have a robust IT support system. We developed and launched the website of IPHACON 2021 about 5 months before the event.[2] The website provided detailed information on the scientific program and registration details. We created our portal for collecting registration fees and receiving abstracts. All records were maintained in-house, and the website contents were updated from time to time to inform regarding the submission guidelines, research grant details, quiz, awards/prizes, and conference updates.

Preconference workshops

Around 11 preconference workshops (PCWs) were organized online over three weeks before the conference. Topics of public health importance were selected keeping in mind the learning needs of the postgraduate residents, Master of Public Health trainees, researchers, and young faculty members of Community Medicine – quasi-experimental design, implementation research, and qualitative data analysis, to name a few. Resource persons from various academic institutions (JIPMER; AIIMS, Delhi; AIIMS, Nagpur; PGIMER, Chandigarh; and IIPH, Delhi) and technical agencies (WHO, AHSAS, IPHA, MINErVA, WFP, and JMP from SAS) brainstormed ways to engage the participants on the online platform. The duration of the workshops varied from 1/2 to 2 days based on the topic, and each workshop was attended by 50–100 delegates. Group activities, breakout sessions, and prerecorded videos were planned to provide a holistic learning experience.

Virtual platform

As running the program of such magnitude was a challenging task, so we decided to outsource the implementation part of 4 days (September 23, 2021–September 26, 2021) to, an IT partner, which had previous experience of managing such events. The selection of the technical partner also followed a systematic process with the involvement of experts with prior knowledge of operating an online conference. The landing page, halls for plenary sessions and for poster/paper presentations were customized. The rest highlighted portion to be deleted. The virtual platform of IPHACON 2021 had three halls – the Main Hall, Hall A, and Hall B for conducting sessions. We customized five stalls to display the academic materials from various organizations. The sessions were webcast on the platform and also livestreamed on other channels for a wider audience. Certificates for participation were also downloadable from the platform at the end of the conference.

Orations and plenary sessions

The theme of the conference was “Public Health more than ever, Now!” with subthemes on the Impact of COVID-19 on Health System, Public Health Action, and Public Health Capacity. A total of 18 plenary sessions, specific to the subthemes, were conducted during the conference with the involvement of knowledge partners. All the PCW and plenary sessions were conducted online. Based on the request of the IPHA Headquarter, the Annual Central Council Meeting, the Annual General Body Meeting, and a few sessions (three orations and two plenary sessions) were organized in hybrid mode – online and in-person. A session on career opportunities and a national-level IPHA quiz was also organized. The speakers and chairpersons of the session received separate links to participate while the audience joined through the platform wherein they could interact through chat options. Standard operating procedures were designed to facilitate the smooth delivery of sessions in a timely manner.

Research paper presentations

All oral/poster presentations were planned one day prior to the main scientific fest, so that delegates could finish presenting oral/posters and be free to attend, and benefit from the plenary sessions. This idea came from feedback received from the delegates of previous conferences. Out of 803 abstracts received, 7% were rejected for not meeting the quality parameters and 38% abstracts were selected for oral and the rest 55% for poster presentations. Oral presentations were organized in ten concurrent halls in three sessions of two hours duration each (10 oral presentations per session). The oral presentations were prerecorded by the speakers for 8 min and submitted online through the website. So, in each hall, around thirty oral presentations were conducted. For each oral session, three chairpersons were appointed, to conduct the session, facilitate live interaction among the speakers and audience, and judge the quality of the papers using a checklist. Two best papers were selected for award from each session.

Poster presentations were conducted in twenty kiosks in a separate hall and were displayed throughout the conference days. Two chairpersons evaluated the quality of the posters using a checklist. Although live interaction with the presenters was planned initially, this could not be materialized due to logistic issues. Two best posters in each kiosk were selected for awards. The abstract compendium and the conference proceedings were compiled into an e-souvenir which was made available on the platform.

Challenges faced

As this was the first such event being organized as part of IPHA, we had to plan many things on the go. Organizing committees had to be redefined as the requirements of a virtual conference were different from conventional ones. High-speed uninterrupted Internet connection was required for several user points, and these need to be carefully mapped. We also had small groups with presenters and speakers for all the sessions and workshops that facilitated better communication and grievance redressal. Organizing quiz on an online mode was challenging, but this was possible through meticulous planning and several trial runs.

Innovations tried

We tried many innovations in the conferences. First, changing the format of the PCWs from a single day to over a period of time. Organizing 11 PCWs over 3 weeks possibly the largest number of PCWs organized in a conference till now. Second, we shifted all the paper presentations to one day so that all delegates had an opportunity to be a part of the learning. Around 750 abstracts were presented in a day. Third, we included plenary sessions on contemporary scientific topics – 18 plenaries of the highest scientific quality, and discussions on career progression from young achievers. Fourth, we encouraged young public health professionals to present their concept proposals. Research grants were awarded by World NCD Federation-IPHACON 2021 and one Resource Center for Tobacco Control-IPHACON 2021 after following a stringent selection process.

Fifth, we announced engagement awards and prizes for the delegates and award winners. Books of public health importance were distributed to the awardees. Sixth, we organized the Annual Central Council Meeting and Annual General Body Meeting in a hybrid mode which allowed for active participation by the members who attended the conference in person and the others through online mode. The virtual inaugural session was held online through prerecorded videos and live presentations. Several social media platforms were used for promotion of the conference-related events through dedicated teams, and this also increased the outreach of the program. On the whole, liberal use of technology and careful planning allowed us to bridge the gaps of interpersonal connection while conducting the conference.

   Outcomes Achieved Top

  1. We provided a premier platform to bring together leading researchers, young public health professionals, and distinguished academicians to exchange and share their experiences and research results on various aspects of public health despite the prevailing pandemic situation
  2. We facilitated active learning opportunities for the participants to enhance their knowledge and skills through multiple PCWs conducted by leading experts from various fields of public health, and about 500 delegates participated.
  3. Three research grants were awarded during this conference to improve the public health research ecosystem in the country.
  4. We witnessed a total of 1463 registrations for participation in IPHACON 2021. Among them, about 986 (67.4%) logged into the virtual platform at least once throughout the entire span of the conference. On the 1st day (research paper presentation), there were 779 logins, accounting for 79% of the total registrations. Around 500 participants logged in on the following days for the plenary sessions and orations, while the participation touched 700 on the last day.
  5. About 500 IPHA life members joined online for the Annual General Body Meeting and is probably the highest number of participations reported in recent times.
  6. We awarded 60 prizes for the oral presenters and 36 awards for the poster presentation during the conference. The online IPHA quiz was also a huge success.

   Lesson Learned Top

  1. We understood the true meaning of the term “Team” – Together everyone achieves more. The key to any event, especially for such a large-scale one, is a motivated and organized team. Our team (members from our institute and various medical colleges in Puducherry) formed quickly based on the expertise and interest of the members, and everyone assembled around a shared vision – to make this conference a high-quality scientific fest for the delegates.
  2. Instead of bottling up apprehensions, it is better to discuss them with the team that helps to make better decisions faster. As described in the Johari window, we minimized the undiscovered/unknown area by feedback and open communication within the group.[3]
  3. The backward planning method with a fixed event date and listing all the activities with a specific timeline was the backbone of the planning process. Deming's cycle of plan-do-study-act was one of the guiding forces for the team members.[4]
  4. Always keep the big picture in mind – it facilitates tide over the crisis and motivates the team to achieve the goal
  5. Communicate the role and delegate responsibility to the team members as per their expertise and capability.
  6. Keep the teams informed. Periodic meeting and updating the progress always helps to keep track of things. A word of caution here, too many or too frequent meetings are also sometimes counterproductive.
  7. Believe in the team and most notably, in yourself. Take everything as a learning experience as sometimes there will be a difference of opinion within the group. The organizational capacities of the youngsters in the team were tested (residents and other trainees) and, at the same time, they exhibited great technological competencies.

To conclude, although conducting the virtual IPHACON 2021 was challenging, we benefitted greatly through new skills acquired, partnerships forged, and lessons learned in this process. We anticipated difficulties for delegates in terms of navigation skills, network connectivity, etc., but the feedback received showed a positive note and a great user experience. Although face-to-face interaction was limited in this conference, we are confident that we were able to meet our objective and hoping to build further based on the experiences gathered.


We thank all the chairs, conveners, and team members of the organizing committee of the IPHACON 2021 and the central council members of IPHA for their support and encouragement. Finally, the conference would not have been possible without the participation of the delegates.

   References Top

Reshef O, Aharonovich I, Armani AM, Gigan S, Grange R, Kats MA, et al. How to organize an online conference. Nat Rev Mater 2020;5:1-4.  Back to cited text no. 1
65th IPHACON 2021 – 65th Annual Conference of Indian Public Health Association. Available from: [Last accessed on 2021 Nov 10].  Back to cited text no. 2
Newstrom JW, Rubenfeld SA. The Johari Window: A Reconceptualisation. Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning: Proceedings of the Annual ABSEL Conference; 1983. p. 10. Available from: [Last accessed on 2021 Nov 10].  Back to cited text no. 3
Cleghorn GD, Headrick LA. The PDSA cycle at the core of learning in health professions education. Jt Comm J Qual Improv 1996;22:206-12.  Back to cited text no. 4


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