Technology, economics shake up conferences

October 1, 2008

I spent the weekend reviewing travel brochures. It was inevitable, really, having just arrived back from holiday the previous weekend.

I spent the weekend reviewing travel brochures. It was inevitable, really, having just arrived back from holiday the previous weekend. Aspen, Val d'Isère, and Zermatt all beckoned from the glossy pages. It seemed an ideal time to plan the winter skiing holiday, when much of Europe will be wet, cold, and miserable.

A thought then crossed my mind. Whatever happened to those themed imaging courses: the oncology cruise around the tropics, the musculoskeletal review of the ski slopes, the gastrointestinal imaging visit to Umbria, the uroradiological update of the statues (and moules) of Brussels, and the advanced contrast ultrasound course in Champagne?

Many courses offered to radiologists in the 1980s and early 1990s combined an educational core with additional social, gastronomic, and sporting diversions. Radiologists did not need to achieve points for continuous professional development at this time. So course organizers selected increasingly exotic destinations to tempt even the most reluctant radiologist to vacate that seat in front of the viewbox.

Many such courses could be dismissed as froth, an excuse to claim expenses on a luxury holiday for two. It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the contribution that a destination makes to the content of a meeting. Specialist societies hold focus meetings in a wide variety of locations, partly to attract delegates and partly to ensure that travel difficulties are evened out and that no one group always has to trek the farthest.

Major meetings in Europe and the U.S. are held in cities with their own inimitable charm. Both locales offer an array of extracurricular opportunities that may divert the delegate from the real meat of the conference: the review lectures, paper presentations, posters, and commercial exhibition.

Many radiological conferences and workshops already offer on-line access to certain aspects of these meetings. The poster presentation at the European Congress of Radiology is a good example. Some organizations, such as the International Society of Radiology, are developing virtual conferences, partly in an attempt to address inequalities in access to travel experienced by those from poorer nations.

Educational opportunities exist in online journals, e-learning tools, web-based case-of-the-month presentations, and "Grand Rounds." Many of these provide self-assessment and the potential for self-certification.

This approach misses the point to a certain degree. What of the need for social interaction among radiologists? What about the professional and personal discussions held in a convivial atmosphere, a milieu where entertainment or even the thrill of a ski run has allowed group members to relax?

Comparisons between different practices, affirmation of similar skills, and sharing of knowledge among peers are important aspects of meetings, too. The benefits of attending a meeting go far beyond assimilation of information, learning of a new skill, or reassurance that one's own skills are up to scratch. The combination of the scientific and the social, of education and environment, allows relaxation and learning and offers opportunities to make new friends as well as meet professional colleagues.

Such debate is particularly important today. We have all been tempted to increase our social, business, and educational travel. We have come to expect that cheap flights will facilitate our acquisition of educational points.

With the specter of global warming in the background, fuel costs are rising. Many airlines have cut unprofitable routes, most are raising fuel surcharges almost daily, and a few, maybe many, are faced with the possibility of bankruptcy.

These developments require us to think again about our dependence on travel when seeking to gain information.

The virtual environment is insufficiently developed at present to replicate all that can be gained from attending a meeting. Those of us who regularly take part in teleconferencing acknowledge the significant limitations of this arena for proper interaction among individuals and groups.

Will the advent of new technologies such as Wii lead to a true online conference environment? Perhaps in the future, radiologists will be able to attend a virtual scientific meeting, followed by some virtual skiing.

This may happen, though watching a DVD of La Traviata is not the same as attending a live performance in Vienna.

Me? I still prefer the idea of a themed radiology meeting, where I can combine my holiday with collection of CME points. Anyone for a musculoskeletal course in Mustique?

DR. DUBBINS is a consultant radiologist at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, U.K.