In praise of conferences

I know of some educators who aren’t fans of conferences and others who are too busy with clinical work to make it to any. Many researchers would denigrate conference presentations compared to publications in high-ranked journals. However, the reality is that sometimes you can interact with a larger number of people at a conference than you ever would as a result of a journal article (even if it isn’t as good for your CV).  In addition some employing educational institutions are making it more difficult for employees to get to conferences as budgets shrink and, of course, if you are in private practice there is no-one to help you get there.  Nevertheless, let me encourage you.

In my experience, I have picked up the best (newish) ideas for my job as a medical educator from attending conferences. Sometimes I have returned with half a dozen interesting thoughts, discussed them with fellow educators and ended up implementing at least a couple.  I could just have read about the same topics on line but I would not have experienced the same interaction or gained an idea of where the idea stood internationally.  You can go to conferences on specific topic areas – as I did initially – but then I started attending the more educationally oriented sessions and soon gravitated to the educational conferences. The current deliverers of Australian GP training organise the GPTEC annually.

Don’t turn up your nose at the idea of going to a conference in a nice place! Choose your location as well as the topic and let it enhance family life rather than detract from it. In my first years in general practice I can recall presenting at a Women’s Health Conference on the Gold Coast.  It was ideal.  We stayed in a luxury hotel, I learnt a lot and my partner got to take the two kids to the theme parks.  It wasn’t cheap but it was something we would not have done otherwise.  The presentation was part of an RACGP Certificate in Women’s Health that I was doing.  I didn’t become a world expert (and no one invited me to give a keynote address) but for years I felt competent at Women’s Health and I followed up with various women’s health meetings and Menopause Congresses etc.

Early on I attended and presented at a combined College conference in Wellington, New Zealand – and my partner got to take the kids white water rafting.  On a couple of occasions we have both attended the same conference because he had helped me by writing software programs for teaching approaches.  Just once we both attended different conferences in the same city.  That took good luck and forward planning.  I guess I’m not the sort of person who has put family and work into discrete compartments but my work-life balance has tended to work by integrating the two where possible. After all, it’s all part of life.

Attending conferences is not the financial perk some people imagine. My previous employer paid my registration, usually if I was presenting, but not the airfares.  I have tagged conferences on to holidays (to make the travel effort worthwhile) so it has generally not been worth claiming a fraction of the big airfares as a tax deduction – just the local travel and accommodation if needed.  My kids live overseas so I’m not complaining.  Conferences I have found useful have been RACGP and WONCA (early on), Menopause Congresses, a few geriatric conferences (in Australia), ANZAHPE, Ottawa (when it was in Australia), ASME (in the UK) and AMEE – the largest medical educational conference annually.  There is nothing of the quality or breadth of this latter conference in Australia.

Choose your conference carefully. Make sure it’s on a topic you are interested in and, preferably, have some positive recommendations from colleagues.  It can be very off-putting to make the effort to go and then feel you have learned nothing new or relevant and that your time could have been better spent elsewhere.  It helps to approach it in a positive way and realise that the quality of sessions will be variable.  Choose your sessions carefully – there are often many to choose from.  For some topics I had already read about them and then chose to attend workshops or symposiums on the topics.   These included:  Progress Assessment, Programmatic Assessment, Entrustable Professional Activities, Portfolios, Script Concordance Tests and others.  Sometimes there is a greater smorgasbord of ideas to pick from if you attend short presentation sessions for some of the time.

I arrived back from these attendances more excited about my job (and with a broader perspective) which has to be a good thing. It was great to connect in person (sometimes over a meal) with colleagues who are on the other side of the country and happened to be attending. It was helpful to present something (usually a short paper) as that honed my thinking on a particular topic. I used to come back feeling encouraged that we were actually doing things pretty well in Australia at the time. Education is often about changing ideas and evidence and implementing them successfully and there is only so long that you can be happy with administering processes and encountering nothing to stretch your mind. It has also been stated that education is essentially interpersonal and interactions with others who share your interests can be more productive than merely reading something on line.

What can you learn from me in a more negative sense? Well, I didn’t network enough (academics can be a bit cliquey and often there is an “in-crowd”) as I ‘m not very assertive. Being in GP vocational training is a bit more of a “part-time” vocation than being in academia and the medical education conferences are dominated by undergraduate education and research.  I didn’t become (or put myself forward as) an “expert” on one topic – I tend to be interested in a broad range of things so I spread my interests too broadly.  In short, I didn’t leverage off the opportunities.  Maybe, like many GPs, I see myself as a jack of all trades.  But how you evaluate that depends on what you want to get out of the experiences and your philosophical framework.

I’m sure those in undergraduate education are still getting to some conferences and, since GP Training has been disrupted and reorganised, there is a great need for those in post-graduate vocational training to broaden their skills and perspective and increase their enthusiasm. We all need to have our initial passions reignited from time to time. In the broader scheme of things it is beneficial for Australian training, long-term, to have access to international experiences rather than being parochial. Take the leap, as many grass-roots GPs do, and take yourself (and family if appropriate) off to an interesting conference in a nice place.  Recharge your batteries. Stave off burnout.  Perhaps go with a colleague with whom you can debrief, chat and gain support from on your return as you plan those “innovations” that make your job more interesting, more worthwhile, more effective and more rewarding.


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