AOTA conference title

I’ve been to the AOTA conference three times in the past 9 years, and each time I get a better and better experience. I always feel rejuvenated and excited about my job after I attend. But there is one big mistake I think most therapists make when choosing to attend the conference.

Don’t expect to improve your clinical skills by attending the AOTA conference.

Wait a minute, what? Yes, you heard me. If you’re an intermediate or advanced practitioner looking for ways to improve your clinical skills, you may be better off attending a different continuing education opportunity that goes in-depth into the specific skills you are interested in. Attending a 90-minute short course or even a 3-hour workshop will not be able to deliver the same depth you may get when attending a course that spans two whole days (or even longer).

Don’t get me wrong though, I think attending the AOTA conference is a very valuable experience, just not for the reason I stated above. Think of it this way. The AOTA conference is like a buffet, serving up the latest and greatest our profession has to offer. You don’t go to a buffet to learn how to cook a meal, but it is great  to be able to sample new ideas and research, or even just to see what is out there.

So if not for clinical skills, then what should you be doing at an AOTA conference?

How to get the most out of an AOTA conference

1. Attend the Slagle lecture.

This year was my first time to attend the Slagle lecture, and it was the highlight of my conference. Dr. Glen Gillen was this year’s Slagle lecturer, and he delivered an inspiring lecture on a return to our roots by focusing on occupation. Think of it as your chance to attend history in the making, since the Eleanor Clarke Slagle lectures are such a significant part of our profession’s history.

2. Plan your itinerary for the conference.

My vacation style is very relaxed, with no fixed itinerary in mind. But that all changes when I’m at an AOTA conference. When the initial conference guide comes in the mail, I get so excited about all the sessions I want to attend! I go through and highlight all the courses and research papers that I think are interesting. Then I try to prioritize as I plan which ones I want to attend. AOTA has an online itinerary builder, but I’m slightly old school when it comes to planning and prefer pen and paper.

Make sure you have an easily accessible list of sessions you plan to attend when you are at the conference, including the times and room numbers. And have a few back-up choices, in case the session you want to attend is full (yes, that happened to me).

3. Make a plan for the Expo Hall, too.

The Expo Hall can easily be one of the most overwhelming but exciting parts of the conference. The first few years I went, I was primarily focused on getting as many freebies from the exhibitors as I could. I went home with bags of stuff and a LOT of free pens. Some of those freebies are still sitting in the garage right now, still unused. This year, I focused on interaction with the exhibitors, whether it was learning more about a new product or about their doctorate program. I still got a few freebies, but I got more out of the Expo Hall with this approach.

4. Cross-pollinate ideas from other practice areas

Since I work in pediatrics, I naturally gravitate towards the Children and Youth sessions. But this year, I stepped slightly out of my comfort zone and found some interesting ideas in other practice areas.

The best way to do this is through poster presentations. That way, you won’t have to sacrifice precious time on a course that may have nothing to do with what you expected. You can view a poster and ask a few questions and then think about how you can apply the information into your own practice. I found myself doing this with posters related to adult rehabilitation, education, and even mental health.

5. Network with other OTs

One of the fun things about conference is just being around so many OTs in different shapes and sizes. Use this opportunity to expand your network! Attend alumni events for your school, or organize your own. Meet up with other OTs from a Facebook group or email listserv. AOTA has a few networking events on the schedule, and they even had an informal area where you could meet up and chat with other OTs.

6. Don’t wait too long to organize your handouts and materials after the conference.

When you come down from that conference high, make sure you go through the stuff you got while the memories are still somewhat fresh. That way you can follow up on an important contact that you made, or download the handouts that you wanted. Or so you can find that $40 book you were so excited to buy at conference and then completely forgot about. (Oops. Yes, that happened to me too.)

Attending the AOTA conference is a great experience, and you can really get a lot out of it. How did you make the most of your experience? I’d love to read your tips in the comments.

What to do (and what NOT to do) at an AOTA Conference

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