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Are conferences any good at disseminating evidence?

Ami Banerjee
Last edited 1st April 2011

The questions of how best to train and educate doctors during medical school and throughout their careers have been difficult to answer for hundreds of years. I was reflecting on this over the last couple of weeks as I attended two overseas conferences. Like most conferences, these meetings aim to bring doctors and scientists up-to-date with the latest research developments in their fields of interest within medicine and the health sciences. They both had top-level speakers and excellent programmes, and both had substantial e-learning and other online resources. Lectures and conferences are the mainstay of teaching and continuing medical education in medicine and many other disciplines, but are they good at what they set out to do? This is a question particularly pertinent to evidence-based medicine, because what it ultimately aims to do is disseminate the best evidence and enable its uptake in clinical practice.

We know that people can learn over the internet using e-modules, video-conferencing and other modalities equally well, but I think there are two reasons why conferences persist. First and foremost, in a world of compulsory continuing medical education, they offer convenience. They are the easiest (and most passive way) to disseminate evidence from research. Secondly, they offer the chance to network (and relax) with peers and opinion leaders which even market leaders like TED.com will find it difficult to emulate.

As educational budgets are cut throughout the NHS and doctors increasingly fund their own continuing medical education, the reality is that pharmaceutical or other industry-sponsored educational events are likely to grow and not decrease, and more safeguards will be needed to avoid a reduction in educational content and an increase in drug company promotional material. As postgraduate deaneries are threatened, there are fears for the standards of training of doctors, but we should be equally worried about who is going to pay for the teaching in the new NHS. The Medical Students International Network (MedSIN) is remarkably forward-thinking about trying to avoid private industry sponsorship of education in medical schools. However, in a difficult economic climate, even with increasing tuition fees, industry-sponsored undergraduate education may rear its head.

There is a role for conferences in the dissemination of research and in promoting evidence-based practice and knowledge translation, but they should not be the only way we keep up-to-date. What is the best way to learn? As some UK public health trainees, say in a recent article: “In order to retain its position as a leader in the field of public health, the UK needs to adapt its training programme to better reflect today's challenges.”

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