Can we get more from our medical meetings?

Recently I attended a national academic conference, and while I’ll admit that, having brought my husband and son along for the trip, the balance of time spent was skewed more toward pool and beach activities than academic sessions, I did indeed attend several and overall they were of good quality. One left me somewhat disappointed, though, because although it addressed what I would consider an important topic within my field, it didn’t really add much new to my knowledge.  And while that sentiment might initially make me seem too self-assured, it actually got me thinking about what we gain from conferences and how we might be able to gain even more.

As a resident, I am far from an expert in anything, including the topic of the conference session in question.  But the topic is an area of great interest for me; I have read numerous articles about it and devoted elective time during medical school and residency to exploring it further.  So, I gathered from the comments made during the session, had the majority of my fellow attendees.  Many offered thoughtful input beginning with phrases such as, “In my experience,” and, “Whenever I face this issue.” It was clear that people were there because they were interested, but perhaps they stood to gain less that day because their interest had already spurred them to develop a knowledge base of their own.

I began thinking, are they (we) really the ones who need to be at this particular session?  There were, more than likely, numerous other physicians out there who would benefit from either an introductory or refresher course on the topic, and they might not even have considered setting foot in that room. Similarly, there were many other topics about which I have much to learn, but whose sessions I had not chosen to attend. Most of the attendees at the meeting were probably clustering into conference rooms to listen to lectures and partake in discussions surrounding areas about which they already knew a fair amount, while bypassing others where the topics being treated felt more foreign, and from which, therefore, they had even more to gain. It would seem that in selecting how we spend our continuing education time, we might not be continuing our educations in the most meaningful and fruitful manner.

Conferences are already somewhat self-selecting events. There is the obvious and logical level of self-selection: Pediatricians attend conferences on pediatrics, oncologists, conferences on oncology, and so forth. But when it comes to which specific conferences under the umbrella of our specialty we choose to attend, and which particular sessions offered there, I would wager that the choices made have less to do with where our weaknesses lie and more with where our comfort does.  As a result, there is a large deficit between how much we stand to gain and how much we actually do.

During medical school we are indoctrinated that as physicians we must be life-long learners.  Once we have completed our training, much of this learning is, by necessity, self-directed. But before we conclude our efforts simply by attending an academic conference and relaxing in the comfort of meeting up with old friends and colleagues and listening to lectures on our particular areas of interest, I challenge us all to take the additional step to explore a topic with which we feel less familiar — uncomfortable, even — and in doing so to expand the boundaries of our comfort and, most importantly, our medical knowledge.

Rebecca E. MacDonell-Yilmaz is a pediatrics resident who blogs at The Growth Curve.

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  • James O’Brien, M.D.

    Conferences are for networking. CME online is much more time-efficient and less expensive.

  • Edward Leigh, MA

    The biggest problem with in-person conferences is the “Death by PowerPoint” syndrome. Nearly every presenter reads their slides to the audience. This is not only tedious, it is also a poor educational tool. I rarely see audience engagement. People learn by doing, not by being passive recipients. Healthcare is always rapidly changing with new and exciting technologies, treatments, etc. However, educational methods are the same as they were one hundred years ago …

    • James O’Brien, M.D.

      I wish teaching was the same style as a hundred years ago, meaning more Socratic. Powerpoint isn’t a hundred years old. It’s another example of how technology is being misused. I agree that it has become an awful crutch. It’s a propaganda tool, not an educational tool. BTW the Defense Dept banned it because of slides like this:

      • Edward Leigh, MA

        Hello Dr. O’Brien: I meant the lecture style of presenting is 100 plus years old. I’ve been around so long I remember slide carousels and overhead projectors. I’v worked in medical education for 25 plus years — the same boring lecture style prevails. I speak at medical events nearly every week & I am usually the only presenter who doesn’t do the PowerPoint thing. I actually make people interact! People learn by doing, not by being passive recipients. I also believe learning must be enjoyable and even inspirational.

        • James O’Brien, M.D.

          Powerpoint has only ossified the worst of slide carousel monotony. But those lectures were more interactive than now. The subtext of Powerpoint is: shut up and don’t ask questions.

          I’m in open rebellion against Powerpoint when I speak, and the only reason I do it is because they require it for the syllabus copies they hand out.

          • Edward Leigh, MA

            Dear Dr. O’Brien: I do the same thing — I send the slides because I have to — however I avoid simply reading the slides to the audience. I ask the audience questions. I have them talk to their neighbor (quick “pair shares”). I have never had anyone fall asleep! I am so happy to hear I am not the only one who has issues with PowerPoint! Yeah! :)

          • James O’Brien, M.D.

            You have ten seconds to study and master this.


            There will be a post test.

          • Edward Leigh, MA

            looks like most of the PowerPoint slides I see in presentations! :)

    • Lisa

      I have slept through many PowerPoint presentations. Ugh…

    • LeoHolmMD

      Great point. Dialogue is the ultimate learning experience.

  • buzzkillerjsmith

    I agree that PowerPoint is horrible, but I am giving a presentation on TB with it in 2 days. I keep it short, 25 minutes or so, 25 slides with just a little info per slide. The first slide shows a sleeper drooling (boring talk ahead) and I also add in a few slides from Napoleon Dynamite and one of the Coen brothers’ movies (most docs are way too serious when they give talks) and provide a written handout with key points.Then we go over real cases for 30 minutes, with me peppering the watchers with obscure questions. Keeps them on their toes and I have to have my fun somehow. And I always finish at least 10 minutes early.

    It’s crazy, but I think a lot of docs expect PowerPoint these days, a least a little of it.

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