Congress organizers must search for ringtone-free enforcement ideas

August 18, 2005

If you were to ask conference speakers what they fear most about giving a presentation, it would probably be a toss-up between a malfunctioning laptop, a total lack of questions and feedback after the talk, and a mobile phone ringing in the audience.

If you were to ask conference speakers what they fear most about giving a presentation, it would probably be a toss-up between a malfunctioning laptop, a total lack of questions and feedback after the talk, and a mobile phone ringing in the audience.

I suspect the third choice would score highest in a straw poll. Laptop failures are now increasingly rare, and professional moderators will come to the rescue and fill embarrassing silences. For most presenters, nothing is more irritating than being in full flow and about to deliver their key points, only to be interrupted by the screech of a mobile phone. Both speaker's and attendees' concentration is broken, and the ridiculous ringtones that are now freely available compound the problem.

To be fair, most offenders simply forget that their phones are switched on; their rudeness is not deliberate. Delegates have heard so many polite requests from conference organizers and moderators to turn off their phones at the start of sessions that they have become impervious to them. After all, how many of us really listen to the safety instructions from the crew before a plane takes off? We know it is important to do so, but we have heard it all before.

During a conference earlier this year, I witnessed a particularly bad case of mobile phone madness. When the Mozart-inspired tone rang out, the offender took nearly a minute to locate his phone. To everyone's amazement, he then proceeded to take the call and conduct a fairly lengthy discussion without leaving the room, incorrectly assuming that those around him could not hear his somewhat muffled tones. Few of the attendees were able to pay close attention to the second half of the speaker's lecture on focal liver lesions.

After the summer break, the European conference season resumes in September, with meetings of the Cardiovascular and Interventional Radiological Society of Europe in Nice, the European Society for MR in Medicine and Biology in Basle, and EUROSON in Geneva. These conferences provide an excellent opportunity for organizers to get tough with offenders whose mobile phones disrupt sessions and infuriate speakers. For the sake of the majority, suitable penalties must be found.

At sporting events in the U.K. that rely on good crowd behavior, such as golf and snooker, police officers are summoned when a spectator's mobile phone interrupts play a second time. The person is removed from the arena and is not permitted to return.

This policy might seem extreme at a medical conference and would be difficult to enforce, but taking a similarly hard line would at least help ensure that delegates show more consideration for others. Speakers who have spent many hours on their presentations and delegates who have invested heavily in attending congresses deserve respect.