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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