Published: November 22, 2021
By Sheila Mauldin, MNM, and Jocelyn Sweatman, National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)
As the world faced traumatic health impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, business activities that had been routinely implemented by credentialing organizations came to a screeching halt, and we were all faced with finding new ways to continue providing high-quality service to our stakeholders. Organizations enacted new policies to allow employees to work remotely, and remote proctoring for exam delivery became a viable option for some groups. Exam-related meetings that traditionally convened in person were restructured to accommodate a virtual format.
While virtual meetings have their own benefits, in-person meetings may help build rapport and subject matter expert (SME) engagement and provide secure environments for exam development activities. As COVID-19 vaccinations became widely available, organizations began to explore the possibility of reinstating in-person meetings with their SMEs. Although it may be tempting to fling the doors open and extend the welcome mat, there are important considerations when returning to in-person meetings.
The health and safety of your SMEs and employees must be your highest priority. Consider the purpose and goals of your meeting and the relevant scientific data to guide your decisions on whether an in-person meeting is required. If you and your team decide to move forward with an in-person meeting during the pandemic, it is important to develop protocols for how the meeting will be conducted and to communicate these protocols to everyone involved.
While you can’t guarantee that meeting participants will not contract or transmit COVID-19, below are some factors to consider when planning for an in-person meeting with your SMEs. Although some are specifically related to COVID-19, others are general tips that can be used with any meetings:
- Seek input from across your organization. Although the meeting may be hosted by a particular team within your organization, it likely involves employees from other teams, too. Be sure to include those individuals in the planning stages. This may include employees or contractors who assist with travel/hotel accommodations, technology or audio/visual needs, meals, office services, volunteer recruitment, etc. Gathering the diverse perspectives on the many different tasks that contribute to hosting a meeting will help ensure its success.
- Monitor protocol recommendations and requirements. While planning your meeting, keep tabs on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendations and any other federal/state requirements; update your meeting protocols as changes develop.
- Consider establishing vaccination protocols. If your organization requires vaccinations for guests and employees participating in the in-person meetings, how will you verify the vaccination record? Develop policies and procedures for collecting, storing, protecting and purging the information you gather. This may be an area where legal advice is particularly beneficial.
- Consider health screenings for visitors. Each morning before arriving for the meeting, consider requiring all meeting participants to answer health screening questions prior to embarking on travel to the meeting location. Meeting participants should be provided with information on how to report any symptoms and steps to follow if symptoms are present. The CDC provides suggested health screening questions.
- Share protocol and safety measures with attendees. Actively share links to information regarding the safety measures implemented by the hotel, ground transportation providers, airlines, etc. Inform participants about any safety measures that have been implemented in your office building or hotel space, such as ventilation improvements, HEPA air purifiers and increased cleaning/disinfecting services. Ensure you have an ample supply of hand soap, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes, and place them throughout your meeting facilities for convenient access. Knowing that you are attentive to these added measures will help your guests realize that you are truly invested in their health and safety.
- Evaluate your meeting space. Assess the location of your meeting to determine the space’s capacity and that it allows for proper social distancing recommendations. Post signs in common areas, such as breakrooms, to remind participants of limited capacity.
- Consider any changes you may need to make regarding food options during the meeting. If you’ve previously provided buffet lunches, consider individually packaged meals your attendees can select prior to the meeting. They will have more control over their food options, and you don’t have to stress over food allergies. If you host group dinners, strive for greater distancing between seats and consider options for outdoor dining. You may also want to reassure attendees that group dinners are optional in case they prefer options with less exposure.
- Communicate frequently with guests and employees. Ask questions to help you identify concerns or potential problems so you can proactively address them in your planning. The finalized protocol document should be disseminated to everyone involved. All participants should be required to agree to follow the meeting protocols and acknowledge an assumption of risk by attending the meeting. Again, this is an area where input from legal counsel will be important.
- Evaluate strategies to identify what worked well and where improvements can be made. Before your guests depart, engage in conversations with them to gather their perspectives on the protocols and measures you put in place for the meeting. Send the guests a post-meeting survey and conduct a debrief with all staff involved in planning and implementing the meeting. These steps will provide valuable information that can be used to refine protocols and processes to improve future meetings.
- Hope for the best, but be adaptable. As the meeting approaches (and during the meeting), situations may change quickly that require you to be agile. Think through as many scenarios as possible and develop your response proactively. Stay abreast of any travel restrictions, whether imposed by personal situations, employers or governmental policies that may impact the guests attending your meeting.
- Seek advice from legal counsel. The world has changed, and you can’t just return to “business as usual.” Share the strategies and protocols you’ve developed with legal counsel to ensure that you’re in compliance with federal, state and local laws and restrictions, and that you’ve mitigated risk for your organization. An ounce of proactive legal advice may save a pound of legal headache later.
Going through these processes will create synergy and buy-in with your staff team. Your guests will feel valued, and you will have set the stage for a successful meeting.