By: Sebastian Tello-Trillo
David Slusky: EHEC is the Electronic Health Economics Colloquium, and rhymes with AHEC (the Annual Health Economics Conference) and MHEC (the Midwest Health Economics Conference). In choosing a name, we wanted to evoke and honor the existing infrastructure of health economics conferences and all of the hard-organizing work others have put in over the years.
Sayeh Nikpay: EHEC is an attempt to carry on with one of the best parts of academic life – listening to and critically discussing research.
How did EHEC got started?
Sayeh Nikpay: I saw that Jen Doleac had advertised an economics of crime online seminar, and I thought – the health economists should do that too!! For those of us who are extroverts, longs days without colleague interactions are hard. I think I sent a tweet saying – hey, we should do this, and people came together very quickly. I think there was a lot of demand for an online seminar – partly because people missed the practice of going to seminars, but partly because they wanted a way to connect to others.
Ezra Golberstein: I’d emailed with a couple of colleagues about how it would be good to have an online health econ seminar, and when Sayeh Nikpay tweeted out about it, we all converged quickly on how to put it into action.
David Slusky: Yes, I recall that Sayeh tweeted on March 26, “Does anyone have plans to do an online health policy seminar?” quoting a Tweet from Jen Doleac about a new online economics of crime seminar series.
What was the impetus behind founding EHEC?
Shooshan Danagoulian: We realized that as better-funded institutions moved some of their seminar series online, the gap in professional resources available to students and faculty with lesser ranked institutions increased.
David Slusky: Also, many of us watched not only our internal seminar series be canceled but also saw our favorite health economics conferences canceled or significantly downsized. This was a big push for getting things started.
What were you hoping to achieve?
David Slusky: We wanted to replace the seminars and conferences that are a vital part of many of our research live. As Shooshan said, we also wanted to make at least some progress toward reducing the inequities in access to research presentations that exist in the economics profession.
Shooshan Danagoulian: I will second David’s answer. This really goes to the heart of what motivates me.
Ezra Golberstein: Agreed, I would add that we saw an opportunity to advance health economics in a difficult time, and in a way that would be inclusive and equitable.
Sayeh Nikpay: I think we all wanted a way to continue to be part of the broader health economist community. And I also wanted to feel like I could “do something.” It is like that scene in Frozen 2 where the snowman Olaf says I am “controlling what I can when things feel out of control.” Yes – I am drawing wisdom from Frozen 2 at this point in the pandemic!
What were some of the critical decisions that were made early on?
Shooshan Danagoulian: Ezra came up with the stellar motto of “Pooling Together Online in a Separating Equilibrium,” which I like very much. While we wanted EHEC to be a place where high-quality current research is presented, we also wanted to start with a lineup of speakers that would be exceptionally interesting to any health economist. We reached out to Kosali Simon, Jon Gruber, Amitabh Chandra, and Amy Finkelstein, and they all graciously agreed to participate. We are very excited to have them present as this presents a unique opportunity for many of our participants to see research by and interact with leaders in our specialty.
Ezra Golberstein: That’s right, we decided to reach out to some very prominent health economists to get EHEC going. But we hope that this will be a venue where anyone can present important new health economics research and get constructive feedback from a broad audience.
David Slusky: There were also questions about the reach and audience interaction. We decided to have a seminar that was open to everyone. We chose Ezra’s Zoom account at Minnesota because he had the highest maximum capacity of any of us. Second, in terms of questions we decided for all questions to be filtered through a moderator. We wanted to maintain the interrupting nature of an economics seminar (which many of us love) without chaos (given our goal of openness and maximizing attendance) and preventing trolling and Zoom bombing. Finally, we also drafted a lengthy code-of-conduct. I want to thank Catherine Maclean for suggesting this and doing much of the work on putting it together. Given we were building something from scratch here, we saw a real opportunity here to implement the kinds of norms and standards that are very hard to implement ex-post.
Sayeh Nikpay: I second that, I really liked Catherine Maclean’s decision to make a code of conduct. We have all been to a seminar where we just felt like “I wish that person would be nicer or would stop asking the same question over and over”. I think the decision to curate questions was an early critical decision that has made the seminar easier to follow form an audience perspective. I hope that the question log also helps the presenter feel like they have not forgotten anything. Sometimes I look back at a note I have taken during a seminar I’ve given and think, I’ll never decipher that!
From your current experience, what can an online seminar achieve that a physical one could not? (and vice-versa)?
Sayeh Nikpay: I think an online seminar can be a great leveler. You do not need to be at a particular institution to see great presenters, and that’s fantastic! Also, I think an online seminar can really amplify the research because it’s hitting a wider audience but also because it’s so linked to health economists and health policy twitter.
Ezra Golberstein: The potential for inclusivity in an online seminar series is unmatched. Many people don’t have in-person health econ seminars at their own institutions, or don’t have resources or invitations to go to many conferences. In-person seminars are not entirely replaceable and are a central part of the health econ culture. But these seminars can reproduce a lot of their value and hopefully avoid less-collegial behavior that can sometimes emerge in seminars.
Shooshan Danagoulian: In-person seminars are wonderful because they allow participants to have impromptu conversations with the presenter in the sidelines. But that involves extensive travel and cost to the presenter, as well as the host institution. As the current health crisis is forcing a lot of communication to move online, we hope that this form of seminar presentations will become more habitual and allow universities to record (if not broadcast) seminars in an electronic format even when in-person seminars return. Physical limitations prevent speakers who are in high demand to accept every seminar invitation, and online seminars allow to increase access to these types of speakers. If online seminars become part of our seminar series, a group of institutions that before did not have access, now would be able to access time with such speakers by pooling attendees and resources.
David Slusky: Agreed on the point of accessibility. There are many individuals who do not have access to well-funded seminar series at their institutions and are not able to go to the smaller seminar-style conferences. Given the marginal cost of an additional attendee is almost zero, this is a format where was can let everybody attend.
Sayeh Nikpay: I do miss those little side conversations where you or a colleague are trying to figure out what someone did or clarify a question before asking it. You also cannot read body language, and I imagine as a presenter it might be less exhilarating if you cannot see your audience being entertained.
How were the first-two seminars? (Number of attendees, questions, etc.)
Shooshan Danagoulian: We had over 200 attendees at the first seminar and over 150 at the second. We do not collect statistics on countries or gender, but we did have international participants. I was also very pleasantly surprised at the casual atmosphere of the presentation. Presenting from home gave us a glimpse of the speaker outside of their professional setting – I particularly loved Jon Gruber presenting with his parrot Chicken perched on his shoulder.
David Slusky: Overall, I thought they were great!
Ezra Golberstein: Yes, with terrific papers and lots of good questions from the audience.
David Slusky: I am so grateful to Kosali Simon and Jon Gruber for being willing to go first. David Slusky: It was also nice to have one paper specifically about COVID-19 and one paper that was not.
What surprised you so far about it?
Shooshan Danagoulian: I was surprised at how many decisions and skills are required to bear in preparing a conference, especially when usual support services are not available. I was lucky to have learned how to make flyers in the course of organizing the seminar series in my own department, so that when Sayeh Nikpay and I started working on the flyers, we were able to make progress very fast. On the other hand, I had to go through a crash course in website design and maintenance, which proved to be rockier!
David Slusky: In addition to the four of us, we have a larger group of a dozen faculty peers who have volunteered to serve as an informal advisory board. I have been surprised at how many individuals want to be involved in making something like this happen.
Ezra Golberstein: Yes, the very high level of interest has been amazing, and that is largely coming just from people on Twitter so far!
Sayeh Nikpay: I am so surprised at how much work my co-hosts have done to make EHEC. Things like making a website, compiling an email list, and managing zoom enrollment might not seem like that big of a lift but they are – especially when you’re trying to do them all at once.
Do you have plans to continue the online seminar after in-person seminars resume?
David Slusky: Maybe! I think a biweekly setup makes that possible, whereas a weekly one may be too much.
Shooshan Danagoulian: I would very much like to, if there is interest on both the participants as well as the speakers. As many universities are placing restrictions on travel in the Fall semester, we believe that even when we return to our departments, the online format will continue to be the only option. We hope that participants will want to remain connected beyond their own institutions, giving us the audience and impetus to continue the series.
Ezra Golberstein: We’ll need to see how the world looks in a few months, but if there is the demand for this sort of thing and it would be great to continue it.
Sayeh Nikpay: I would absolutely love to keep going!
Sayeh Nikpay is an Assistant Professor of Health Policy at Vanderbilt University.
Shooshan Danagoulian is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Wayne State University.
Ezra Golberstein is an Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota.
David Slusky is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Kansas and the Editor of the ASHEcon Newsletter.
Sebastian Tello-Trillo is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the University of Virginia and a Co-editor of the ASHEcon Newsletter.
More information about EHEC is available at ehealthecon.org.
You can also find it on Twitter @HlthEconSeminar.