How To Survive a Medical Conference

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I sat in a coffee shop in Tokyo, fighting back the tears. I was watching my kids and husband on a roller coaster which, after plummeting from a ridiculous height, shot through an opening in a skyscraper.

The rollercoaster wasn’t the reason I was almost sobbing. I’d just gone to a conference, and in less than twenty minutes had walked out, not to return. My faith in the medical world, humanity, education, and even in the art of thinking had been shattered. The only thing which grounded me to reality was watching my family squeal with delight as they shot through a building.

How had it come to this? A small meeting of an international chapter of a cardio-thoracic society. I walked into a foyer where everyone looked the same. They dressed the same. No one expected me to be a doctor. I hadn’t dressed like one. I wasn’t male. (Japan can be incredibly misogynistic, as the recent scandal involving admissions to medical show.) And I wasn’t interested in hearing how someone had spent the last 6 months studying which finger gave the best reading on a pulse-oximeter.

Seriously? I had come here to think. To question. to use my mind.

Mind you, I’d also gone to university expecting to think, but had instead spent fine years memorising then regurgitating knowledge, rarely analysing it. Whatever happened to the world penned by C.P. Snow? But that is another blog.

I couldn’t help but wonder: if aliens were to drop in, would they seriously believe this was how so-called intelligent people spent their time?

On going education is part of being doctor, as it is for many professions. For me the fact it’s a requirement for annual registration is irrelevant; it’s something I just do. Because I’m interested. Because things change. Because I’m always reading. Because it’s human nature to ask questions.

So, sitting over a bad coffee in Japan, I came up with a list to help me survive these conferences.

i) Start With an Interesting Place

Part of the problem was where the conference was held. Tokyo is the most amazing place, yet the conference centre was in an impressively characterless area. A place of boring skyscrapers and busy roads. Once inside the hotel where the conference was being held, I could have been anywhere in the world. It was one of those hotels.

Thanks goodness we weren’t staying there, it would have completely changed my view of Tokyo. Whether the conference is a stand-alone event or part of a holiday, it makes sense to go somewhere interesting. After all, time away from work is too rare an event. The world is full of interesting places, and even some airports exert their own charm (try having fish nibble your feet in Singapore, or play a round of golf at Hong Kong Airport). Why waste time in somewhere not inspiring? Or at least different? Why go home unsure whether you were in South Korea or Paris?

ii) Leave the Venue for Lunch

The lunch hour is when conference venues are most packed. Poster halls and trade displays become impassable, and trying to talk to anyone at these exhibits is nigh impossible. The queues for a half-way decent coffee stretch to ridiculous lengths, as do those for the toilets. Simply finding a place to sit and gather stray thoughts proves a challenge.

Instead, I use the lunch hour to escape into the fresh air. With nearby cafés crowded with delegates, this is the time to explore. Hence the first point of choosing a conference somewhere interesting. At a recent conference in Melbourne I walked to the National Gallery of Victoria, inspired myself with a dose of Renaissance Art, then lunched in the gallery itself (thus supporting the gallery). Most cities boast an abundance of cafés, restaurants, shopping and sight-seeing, and the lunch hour is the perfect time to start. Simply wandering the streets can wash away any intellectual ennui.

iii) Out-walk Death

When most of the day is spent sitting, there’s no harm in getting some incidental exercise by taking the stairs. (The more exercise, the more excuses for a nice lunch). Anything to stop my butt sagging south .Physicians should practice what they preach, yet at a recent cardiology conference I was at times the only one taking the stairs, while there was queue for the escalator.

On the plus side, keeping up aerobic levels helps to out walk Death — with his pace estimated to be three miles an hour, it’s embarrassing meeting Him while waiting for the lift (Stanaway, BMJ 2012).

iv) Leave a Few Minutes Before the Lecture Ends

Unless you want to stay for the entire question and answer session, try leaving a few minutes before the lecture ends. The bathrooms will be virtually empty, and the queue for coffee manageable. (You may have noticed a recurring coffee theme in my writing. And why not? Life’s too short for a bad cup of coffee, or flat heels.)

For the same reasons, miss the first few minutes. (Of course, I only do this at a large conference, where there is a constant flow of delegates in and out of rooms. In a smaller room I pay the talker the respect they deserve — after all, should I ever be asked (unlikely) I doubt I would have the confidence to stand up there and present.

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Leave a little early and transport home won’t be a problem

v) Remember This is the Internet Age

Most larger conferences now have their own conference app to download, and venues usually provide free (if slow) Wi-Fi. This makes it much easier for me to plan my daily line of attack. If a presentation is broken down into five or six segments. I may be interested in only a couple of these, but there may be other bits at another talk I want to hear. I simply room hop amongst the interesting talks. I’ve paid enough to attend, I want to get my money’s worth.

Sometimes a talk can be completely different to what you expect; if it doesn’t hold your interest, find one that does. Be prepared to take a gamble — it’s a great way to come across unexpected gems (such as the progress of Western medicine as measured by the medical treatment of American Presidents. I probably should have been updating some skills, but I found the talk fascinating.)

vi) Add A Touch of Counterpoint Culture

Listening to lectures is intellectually exhausting. Rather than collapsing in front of the TV of an evening, or soaking in a bath with a glass of wine, try refreshing your brain with a touch of culture. An art gallery or exhibition perhaps, or maybe a museum; take in a play, or find a fringe show.

Simply walking can lead to the most interesting of discoveries. Sit in a restaurant or cafe and watch the world go by. I find using a camera helps me to see a place with new eyes, even if I think I know it well. There is always some new foible to discover.

vii) In Medicine, There Is Little New Under the Sun

Lecturers need to condense a lot of information into a short space, which can prove overwhelming. The result is too often an audience of zombies.

Consequently, I question everything. Not out loud(too many ask questions to show off their own knowledge) but to myself. It stops my mind from going numb.

Slides overflow with information, and statistics are presented quickly. Disclosures are often slid over, or in the fine print. Next comes the evil of Power Point, with its Orwellian use of incomplete sentences, passive verbs, and repetition to emphasise points. For the dummies. In Case You Missed It. It’s Highlighted Here. (So you don’t see the missing bits.)

Breakthrough discoveries are rare; instead, the increasing cost of research is spent chasing a progressively smaller improvement. Too often funding is linked with outcome, thus removing scientific independence. A 20% improvement of an 0.01% occurrence is ridiculously close to zero — and new treatments rarely come cheaply. Also, results are too often given in subjective measurements (such an improvement in quality of life) as opposed to an objective measurable effect.

And, trite as it sounds, chances are you already know what is being presented.

viii) Stay Somewhere Interesting

It can be tempting to stay in the recommended hotel near the conference because of a good deal, convenience, tax deductions and the like. It may be a good choice, it may not. Make use of Google maps, Trip Advisor, the hotel website — there are heaps of way to find what suits you. Just make sure it’s easy to get to and from the conference (no need in having to get up earlier of a morning than needed). In essence a hotel is a room to sleep in, but where it is, what’s nearby, the ambience of the neighbourhood — for me, these add to the holiday and the memories. (And I didn’t even mention a decent coffee shop.)

ix) And Finally

Remember to take your name badge off when you leave. It’s a tad embarrassing sitting on the metro or walking along the Bund with your name displayed to all who pass.

Besides, the conference is over for the day; time to explore the world, and start planning the next trip.

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Always another place to go

Written by

At 10 I discovered travel, books and philosophy. Now I pass my days with a camera in one hand, a notebook in the other, looking for the perfect coffee.

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