It was not too long ago, but it seems like decades when traveling for a CME conference was a routine part of being a physician as looking up articles on UpToDate or giving patients bad news. But like so many other things in life, the reality of CME conferences has changed.
Most training programs give allowance to physicians for CME conferences on a yearly basis. After training, you have to keep yourself updated in your specialty, and ongoing learning is indispensable to any medical career. In most hospital-employed positions, physicians get days off and financial allocation for CME. In private practices, which are dying slowly as large hospital systems are engulfing them mercilessly, allowances for CME learning are factored into clinical practice and overhead expenses.
It used to be very exciting to look forward to attending the CME conferences. Most physicians attend the annual CME conferences held by their respective professional societies. It comes with a great sense of pride and achievement if your paper gets accepted to be presented in front of an international audience. Others will choose to go to conferences that review board exam preparation materials or other such lectures that help you bridge the gaps in areas of knowledge base that are getting rusty.
Visiting such a professional conference is a wholesome experience. The feeling of being in a room full of experts from around the world in your chosen-for-life field is full of joy. As they walk up to the podium and deliver their talks about cutting-edge research, the speakers are given celebrity-like respect and applause. You get a chance to ask questions and enjoy the debates that ensue when discussing controversial grey areas. You get a chance to “hang out” with the specialist celebrity of your choice and pick their brains about individual cases. In breaks and in the evenings, you network with colleagues from other institutions. You attend the pharmaceutical industry expositions and marvel at the financial aspect of medical care. You attend alumni happy hours and excursions. You return brimming with the latest knowledge, having made new contacts and refreshed by breaking the monotony of daily clinical life.
A few years ago, it was time for me to start planning to go to a CME conference. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that the pursuit of academics is not the only intent for attending such conferences. This is also a long weekend or a couple of days off with most of the expenses paid by the employer! My mind kept coming up with questions that I was too shy to ask anybody else. Why would you not want to go to an exotic place? Why would you not think of it as a mini-vacation as well? Is it bad to think of a CME trip that way? Am I being unprofessional? Is it that in my own eyes, I fail myself that I am using an educational opportunity, partially, to satiate my recreational desires? Not finding a clear answer and concluding that my mind was ridden with “professional guilt,” I moved on.
I was between specialties. I had finished internal medicine training and was not interested in a conference in that field. I wanted to go into hematology/oncology but had not yet been matched for a fellowship, so I did not want to start going to hematology/oncology conferences either. I opened the web browser and started searching randomly, and I stumbled upon a search engine called CME Finder. I also found CME Cruises and CME Exotic Vacations. I couldn’t help smiling to myself at the thought that I was not the only one thinking along those lines. There might be enough physicians out there who may also be looking for a two-in-one deal like me. At least enough that there are multiple search engines just for that purpose. I started looking, and you could search by cruise type and exotic location, among other options. If you wanted a specific region, they would list the names of conferences in that area, and you could choose a conference of your interest held at your desired location.
I came across a conference at an exotic beach resort location that was about medical ethics and malpractice. This was being conducted by an institute of revered reputation. I browsed the faculty list, and there was a very interesting combination of not only doctors but lawyers from across the country, all highly qualified and accomplished and well respected in their areas of expertise. I patted myself on my back for the excellent selection of a conference both in the learning content and the exotic potential of the location and the fanciness of the resort.
My experience of attending the conference was even better than I expected. I learned so much about medical ethics and different approaches toward clinical cases, not only from a physician’s perspective but also from the attorney’s viewpoint. I realized how pigeon-holed we have all become in our respective specialties. Gaining some knowledge in a different specialty gives a new perspective and way of thinking about your own area of expertise. I decided that I would not rule out attending medical conferences outside of my own specialty in the future.
Then the COVID pandemic happened. All the major world events got canceled. This included all CME conferences.
Zoom became a new sensation, and like everything else, all CME conferences also were changed to virtual. We are at the two-year anniversary of the beginning of the pandemic and although a few conferences are back to being held in-person but they are few and far between and poorly attended. Although there are hybrid versions of these conferences but looks like virtual conferences are here to stay.
Don’t get me wrong. The virtual conferences are supremely convenient. You can attend via your laptop or your cellphone. You can listen to the talks in your car on your way to work or on your lunch break while you’re having a sandwich. You can watch on your own time and replay if you missed a point from a lapse in attention. But there is no denying that the excitement and the joy of the in-person conferences are lost.
Now I go to my office and lock the door. I sit alone. I watch the screen and the monotony of one speaker after another, who is also sitting at his/her office desk, making it hard to remain attentive. My thoughts often drift to the pictures and books on the wall behind the speaker and wonder if they are wearing suit pants or pajamas. How does their choice of background reflect on their personality? There is no applause, no spontaneous laughter, or exclamations. Between two talks, I might get up to get a coffee and use the restroom, but there is no one to talk to or share the excitement of a new point that I have learned. It is hard enough to sit through a few hours of continuous zoom talks, let alone several consecutive days of back-to-back lectures.
I hope that as the pandemic recedes, professional organizations put extra effort into conducting these CME conferences in-person again. I hope that virtual conferences do not become the new norm. There is already talk about employers cutting down on the number of CME days allowances and financial reimbursement for airfare and lodging. Why take a few days off to travel to listen to some talks when you can do it on your own time and from the comfort of your office chair, they say. Classical medicine has already lost a lot of its charm by miring doctors into the web of incessant maintenance requirements of the electronic health record, which like laundry, never ends. Ending in-person conferences will be another nail in the coffin of the joys that used to be associated with this beloved profession of ours.
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