By Larry Halverson, M.D.
While practicing medicine in a rural community, I cherished opportunities to attend national medical conferences. I could occasionally swing the challenges of finding call coverage, arranging travel and convincing my family to travel with me. Despite the difficulties, the anticipation alone was exciting. I appreciated the chances to spend time in a big city, meet with colleagues in the same line of work and just get away from the daily challenges of family practice in a small town.
Overview of the Conferences
The few national family medicine conferences are arranged by large membership organizations that can incur significant debt, hire capable staff and recruit well regarded lecturers. Renowned experts in all medical specialties (commonly excepting family medicine) are contracted and are presumably well paid to teach practicing physicians. When I attended, we usually learned new things about many ancient and newly emerging diseases. We were also afforded significant time to query the professors about some of our more perplexing patients.
I always learned a few useful new things. I also reconnected with friends who I had not seen since residency, medical school or even undergraduate schooling. Gatherings with special friends during evenings were usually pre-arranged often by spouses. We usually met for dinners together at a unique restaurant. But we also crammed into someone’s hotel room for boisterous bull sessions. Some unexpected attendees were often spotted at early forums and welcomed into our informal gatherings. It was rewarding and therapeutic to tell our stories to each other without fear of legal judgments, violations of privacy or typical misunderstandings that occur outside of professional boundaries.
Although I primarily went to further my medical acumen, many of the out-of-conference activities were also memorable. I especially enjoyed some unique historical sites, a geographic novelty or a ballgame. I recall seeing the Tea Party Museum in Boston, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and Wrigley Field in Chicago. Besides seeing the sites, I usually attended a baseball game. I love baseball anyway and the slower paced game allows time to socialize between plays and innings. Newer major league parks also have abundant activities for children and even those who are not mesmerized by the game seem to enjoy the experience.
The conference was always more satisfying when the family activities appealed to my spouse and children. It is a challenge for conference planners to facilitate enjoyable activities for a diverse array of families. For example, a fashion show once offered was not well attended. It may have attracted older female spouses but was not appealing to younger spouses, male spouses and those parents who were tending toddlers. I think planners would be wise to poll potential attendee’s spouses to get some guidance. I suspect an array of activities for which conference planners can provide support would be more palatable.
Funding and its Impacts
The conferences that I attended were usually underwritten by companies that had business interests in getting in close quarters with family doctors. I recall walking into lectures halls that required passing through a hallway where sellers of various drugs, medicinal products and health-related technologies beckoned us like carnival hawkers on a state fair midway. It was uncomfortable and somewhat degrading. Although the sponsors were all selling approved products, makers of similar products compete for brand awareness and allegiance as do all other merchants. I don’t think this can be easily regulated by conference planners. The alternative would be for doctors to pay more for the national meetings and that would almost certainly impact attendance. I do think that there should be more transparency between patients and physicians and the impact of commercial interests on the escalating costs of healthcare, but that problem is not limited to national conferences.
I also regretted the subliminal message that family doctors only need specialists to teach them about diseases. The reciprocal, where family doctors teach specialists about patients never seems to be offered. A quote attributed to Hippocrates 2500 years ago reads, “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has”. I submit that adage remains true today. The informal dinners and bull sessions with colleagues went a long way toward balancing the disease-centered information offered at the conferences with the patient-centered aspects of practicing medicine. However, an occasional address by an expert in patient-centered care would have been appreciated.
Despite some of the downsides, I benefitted from the national medical meetings that I attended. With a rare exception, I have no regrets. However, with a little less commercial input and a little more attention to the needs of patients, I think they could be even more important and beneficial to improve human health and healthcare.
Larry Halverson is a retired family doctor and contributing writer from Springfield, MO. To learn more about his book Windblown: The Remarkable Life of Richard S. Buker Jr., MD, A Family Doctor, visit publishingconceptsllc.com/product/windblown.