Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Worst CME Meeting Ever

I cover a lot of continuing medical education (CME) meetings, partly because there are just not enough good medical research meetings to go around.

In good CME meetings the speakers are experts in their specialties, and they inform their audience of physicians of the very latest new research and put that research into context. It's not that difficult to find news when the speaker is discussing his or her own recent research. But when the speaker is essentially reading a textbook chapter, the most I can hope for is a "tips and tricks" or "clinical pearls" article.

Not all CME meetings are good. Some are mediocre, and some are downright awful. It can be challenging to find news stories at these meetings.

One year, and again two years later, I covered a CME meeting organized annually by a major San Francisco Bay Area university with a very active CME unit. This university presents dozens of different CME meetings every year, some of them quite good. The three-day meeting I attended is called "Advances in Infectious Disease," and it includes about a dozen of the university's faculty members discussing many different aspects of this important topic.

That first year it was clear that at best this was a mediocre meeting. Although I never attended medical school, it was obvious that the speakers weren't presenting information on the latest advances in infectious diseases. Instead, they were merely reviewing elementary material that all the docs in the audience should have learned in their first or second year of med school, even if they had graduated 20 years ago. I was lucky to eke two articles out of that meeting.

But when I attended the same meeting two years later, it became clear that the meeting had transcended "mediocre" and had ascended to the heights (or descended to the depths) of "breathtakingly awful." And that's because it was quite literally the same meeting I had attended two years earlier.

The faculty consisted of the same dozen speakers, and their talks were word for word and PowerPoint slide for PowerPoint slide the same as the talks from the earlier meeting. Not one of them had taken the trouble to update his or her presentation. I could have played my recordings of the earlier meeting for the audience and saved the faculty the trouble of turning up in person.

This may have been marginally acceptable had there been no important developments in understanding infectious diseases in the interval. But I cover this stuff every day, and I knew that there had been many important developments during the prior two years.

The meeting's organizer, for example, delivered the identical talk on malaria both times. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention (or worse, perhaps he didn't even know), that the results of a major international clinical trial on malaria had been published several months before the second meeting.

I couldn't file a single story from this meeting, and I begged my employers not to send me again.

If I were one of the several hundred docs who paid about $500 (not counting lodging and transportation) for this worthless conference, I would have loudly demanded my money back. Perhaps, however, the content of the meeting wasn't as important to most of them as the tax-deductible vacation in San Francisco.


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