Thursday, June 02, 2011

Why medical conferences are a waste of time and money

I am very pleased that the Indian Medical Council has made continuing medical education ( CME) compulsory for doctors. The hope is that by making this mandatory, doctors will invest in educating themselves, so that they remain uptodate with the latest medical advances, helping them to provide state of the art medical care for their patients.

The only form of CME credits which the Indian Medical Council recognises is attendance at a medical conference. This medical conference has to be approved by the Council ( presumably based on the quality of the content provided for the participants) ; and doctors who attend approved conferences get a certain number of credits for their attendance. Doctors need to prove that they have accumulated a certain number of credits every year if they want to renew their registration.

However, while this is a great idea on paper , its implementation leaves a lot to be desired. The biggest problem is that in real life, medical conferences are terrible tools for teaching doctors ! Lectures are the most inefficient form of transferring information, but our schools and medical colleges still insist on using this outdated format to teach their students. Unfortunately, the authorities have been very short-sighted , and they seem to recognise only this kind of learning for providing CME credits.

Have you ever attended a medical conference ? Half the audience is outside in the hallways, chatting , collecting freebies at the stall, and eating. Most are fast asleep once the lights are dimmed; while others doctors go out shopping or sight-seeing once lunch is over . Few speakers have the eloquence and presentation skills to grip their audience because and most speakers are selected based on a quid pro quo basis - " If you invite me as a speaker for your conference , I'll invite you for mine :) . This is why most conferences have the same speakers talking on the same topics. Most presentations are boring and poorly prepared. They often contain outdated information, prepared at the last minute by a junior resident, who has copy and pasted stuff from the web. The speaker then reads out the text on the slides - and tries to show off his erudition . The only reason doctors can get away with this is because few doctors in the audience are listening - and most doctors know even less than what the speaker does ! This is why the "learning" which doctors get from conferences evaporates so quickly !

What about the "international faculty" who is often prominently featured in the brochures which are used to market these conferences ? While some of them are star speakers, most are quite mediocre - and come only because a pharma company has sponsored their trip !

How is this attendance going to help them to become better doctors ?

Conferences are a farce as far as their value in teaching doctors is concerned , but they will remain popular for many reasons. For one, they are a great way of ego-boosting for the conference organisers ! Presidents and Secretaries of Medical Associations love hearing themselves speak - and a conference gives them a great opportunity to do so. Associations have budgets to hold conferences - and they will continue to do so .

Pharmaceutical companies love sponsoring conferences ! It gives them a great chance to sell their wares to hundreds of doctors in one places - and getting a speaker to pitch their product is a great advertorial for them !

What about international conferences ? Many of these have now become circuses ! There are so many participants and so many sessions going on in parallel, that it's impossible for attendants to learn anything meaningful. However, it's a great pretext to take a holiday - hopefully to an exotic location for which a pharmaceutical company will pick up the tab !

Doctors love attending conferences. They feel good about attending them, because it's easy to justify doing so - see what a good doctor I am - I know all about the latest advances because I attend so many conferences ! In reality, the only thing most conferences are good for is for networking, schmoozing and meeting old friends ; socialising; and having a good time. These are important and valuable goals, so I am not badmouthing them . My only request is that it's high time we called a spade a spade - and acknowledged the fact that conferences are not good tools for teaching doctors !

The reality is that these conferences represent a waste of a lot of precious time and money ! Can we really afford to waste the doctor's precious time like this ?

And more importantly, if conferences are not an effective way of ensuring that doctors remain updated, then what's the option ?

This will be the subject of my next post.

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