If you were at CSM in San Antonio last week, you know this conference was big – in a variety of ways. The APTA touted record attendance levels. The conference was spread out among a huge convention center, with concurrent sessions in two additional hotel centers. Overflow viewing screens had to be set up in the hallways to accommodate full sessions. The exhibit hall was sold out and always packed. The conference hashtag, #APTACSM was even trending at the #2 spot on Twitter for some time. I guess everything really is bigger in Texas. Let’s investigate the growth of this conference, and who actually attends.
CSM 2017 continued to set attendance records this year and has been growing steadily in popularity in the profession. Reports of total attendance have varied for the conference, with talk of over 14,000 in San Antonio. Erin Wendel-Ritter, Manager of Media Relations and Consumer Communications for the APTA, reported registration was over 11,600* for conference attendees. That is a lot of PTs, PTAs, and SPTs! While the number itself is impressive, how does it break down to actual membership? Dr. Sharon Dunn, President of the APTA, tweeted that the Association is at ~98,000 members, with a drive to get to 100k by the NEXT Conference in June. That equates to roughly 11.8% of members attending CSM. There are a variety of reasons why members do not attend yearly conferences, including registration cost, travel, and time off work.
I think we can be more involved as a profession – 11.8% is good, but we can most certainly do better. As Dr. Dunn notes, it starts with increasing the membership of the APTA. Even if we stay at 11-12% attendance, an annual increase in membership of 3% would increase the attendance by roughly 1,000 registrants in 2018. This is no small task, as the rates of membership among other national healthcare organizations, such as the AMA, have suffered recent setbacks in membership rates. From an overall profession standpoint, in 2014 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that our profession encompassed around 292,130 Physical Therapists and Physical Therapist Assistants. From that point of view, CSM draws only about 4% of Physical Therapy professionals to attend. And that does not include students.
The student attendance at CSM 2017 was staggering. At times, it almost seemed like a student conference. Erin reported that student registrants accounted for over 4,100* of the total attendees! Student attendance was 35% of the total conference attendance. I think this is great – sort of. CSM is obviously doing a great job of attracting young professionals to a growing conference. Hopefully, they realize the value in the education and networking opportunities and continue to attend as professionals. Students are the future of our profession, and our profession is arguably the future of healthcare. The downside, however, is that it knocks down the number of actual practicing PTs that are attending this conference. If we take students out of the equation, then only about 7,500 practicing PTs and PTAs were in attendance or about 2.5% of the actual PT workforce.
So where do we go from here? The obvious answer is to encourage membership and active participation in the APTA. We can learn a lesson here from the AMA as well, their membership has started to increase in 2015 after a decade-long decline. How did they do it? By attracting student members and becoming more involved with academic institutions. Another solution is to continue to encourage PT professionals to share their voice on social media, which may create FOMO for those not in attendance. I expect students will continue to play a huge role in the development and growth of CSM as a conference in the years to come, and I hope that they continue to be active as graduate Physical Therapists.
*Initial numbers reported to PT Think Tank at the time of publishing. Final attendance numbers will be released on 3/6/17, at which time this article will be updated.