Can a conference change your life?

Dr Lance O’Sullivan knows the power of conferences. Aged 17, the self-confessed disruptive child from a deprived background was taken to a conference on Māori medicine by his aunt.

“A young man in his 20s spoke to us and captured my attention. He was smart and charismatic. At the end of it I found out he was a doctor. I thought ‘I want to be like you’. It started this shift, this journey.”

The twice-expelled teenager set his sights on medical school, later becoming a GP and advocate for Māori health in New Zealand’s Far North. By 2014 he was known as a disruptive medical professional and was named New Zealander of the Year.

O’Sullivan was speaking on “Transforming desperation into disruption”, at Tourism New Zealand’s MAP2019 (MEETINGS Association Programme) Workshop. Attendees included 20 association eCxecutives who have recently won, or are currently bidding for, international conferences.

“It’s important the intellectual capital that comes with holding conferences,” O’Sullivan said. “It highlights what we do that is smart, and brings people here that leave something beneficial behind.”

O’Sullivan outlined his progression from dysfunctional childhood to becoming a champion for equal health care in New Zealand. With the establishment of Navilluso Medical, the former GP is now a leading health innovator, with the aim of increasing access to quality health care using digital technologies.

Conferences again were a factor: “It all started with me attending an international medical conference at SkyCity. I was a fledgling medical disruptor dude and at that formative time in my career I was fortunate to listen to an influential international visitor that planted a seed.”

That speaker - talking about the introduction of telemedicine in Alaska - shared a panel with O’Sullivan, whose time as a GP in Kaitaia had led him to concerns over access to care, particularly in remote areas, or where families are living in poverty. The result was the iMOKO digital health system; a quick health assessment is made on a mobile device and uploaded to the cloud for a team of medical professionals to assess.

O’Sullivan gave the example of a Kaitaia boy who had suffered sores on his legs for nine months. Within 8 minutes of the photos and assessment being uploaded by his educator on an iPad, O’Sullivan had overseen the case - on his phone, while in America - and a prescription for treatment sent to the boy’s closest pharmacy. His legs were healed within weeks.

O’Sullivan’s latest project involves working with New Zealand AI specialists Soul Machines on the creation of digital health professionals. This includes work with mental health advocate Mike King to roll out ‘mental health navigators’. These AI avatars will support tech-savvy young people who may be too embarrassed to seek help face-to-face, providing advice and potentially steering them on the path to mental health services.
 
O’Sullivan told attendees that he was hopeful a small conference he had been involved in organising in Kaitaia, this time on genetics, would also prove inspirational. The Waharoa ki te Toi Health Research Centre opened in 2018 at Kaitaia Hospital, a partnership between O’Sullivan’s Moko Foundation and the Maurice Wilkins Centre. It has received $500,000 of funding to establish and deliver a genetic programme run by and for the people of Kaitaia. It is studying genetics as a predictor of metabolic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease - health issues that are prevalent in communities such as Kaitaia. O’Sullivan is particularly pleased with the lab’s work in attracting young university graduates.

“We want to build up young people in the community to be world-leading. We have to build value in our community. We hope to see more events like that.”

Attendees at MAP2019 spoke of their own hopes for their upcoming conferences: from leading social change in New Zealand around gender equity through the IWG World Conference on Women and Sport, coming to Auckland in 2022; to raising public awareness of the importance of wetlands to New Zealand’s landscape and ecology at the INTECOL International Wetlands Conference, taking place in Christchurch in 2020.

O’Sullivan concluded: “We have so much to show the world, and we can learn so much from the world coming to us.”

*Tourism New Zealand’s MAP event coincides with the annual CINZ MEETINGS trade show.