Reinventing Medical Conventions in the Digital Age

7th March 2018

Medical societies started to blossom in the early 1800’s. The aim was for their members to exchange knowledge and organise medical practice. Those were initially limited to countries, but, as science does not have frontiers, international societies soon began to burgeon as well, spreading scientific knowledge worldwide and initiating medical conventions.

In general, national medical associations hold conventions yearly, while the international ones do so every two to four years, rotating in different regions of the world. The interval between meetings usually gives enough time to build a body of new information worthwhile for participants to come and justifying the investment of substantial resources. The profitable business of conventions was thus born, fostering networking and scientific progress.

Besides showcasing the latest scientific discoveries, it then became necessary to promote the education of young doctors and regulate the expertise level of specialists. The educational boards of medical specialties became managed by national societies. Specialised medical societies were born with the need of branching general medicine into specialties fostered by the fast medical progress made all through the 20th century.

A bit of history

As medical societies were born and organised medicine progressed, humans experienced roughly the triplication in life expectancy. This improvement was witnessed in all continents, even in less wealthy areas of the world – a testament to the overall improvement of healthcare with the specialisation and the rapid dissemination of knowledge promoted by medical conventions and a well-organised medical sector worldwide.

Today all medical specialties have their corresponding meetings, whose mission is the exchange of information, the education of young doctors and the dissemination of new therapies, whether medical, surgical or technological. At one point, pharmaceutical and medical device companies became major sponsors of medical conventions starting to play an important role in medical education. There were days when conventions were highly subsidised by private companies.  The convention industry became profitable to all stakeholders – to the hosting cities through direct tourism benefits, to the delegates through education and to the companies that were hoping to introduce their products to the market. It was also a major win for the patients who benefitted from the outstanding medical progress that was showcased at those conventions.

While the dissemination of knowledge was dependent on the specialised press, the two- to four-year accumulation of knowledge justifying the holding of an international convention was reasonable, as the turnover of publications, be it medical journals with the need of peer review, or the production of textbooks, would take as much time to reach the reader. The presentation of the most recent findings in medicine was indeed dependent on conventions: the material presented at conventions would appear in the scientific press one to four years later; they would then be read by the scientific community at large, generating ideas, new discoveries and developments. This was a relatively long cycle in today’s standards!

Changing time frame

The time frame to spread knowledge has changed with the digital age. Today knowledge is produced and disseminated at a speed that traditional conventions cannot follow. What will happen with the old convention model, which most of us know? Will conventions become digital? Is this already happening? Convention stakeholders, starting with the sponsors, are questioning the  model based on expensive exhibition boots, placed in highly priced spaces. Additionally, lavish and expensive trips offered by exhibitors to attending doctors are no longer viewed as appropriate. As major device companies initiated, isn’t it less costly and more effective to bring doctors to be educated in their headquarters, where the demonstration of products is at hand and practical?

Compliance, a synonym for private corporations not being able to take up the expenses of conventions, is being dutifully enforced by government agencies. Will this regulation of doctors’ participation in conventions limit their attendance (or is it already doing so?), therefore slowing down the dissemination of science, which is so important for the evolution of medicine and patient care? Medical societies are already trying to overcome these barriers by promoting more and more digital education. The webinar industry is rapidly growing, as are free online journals, medical and surgery technique videos on YouTube, providing free learning to doctors, as well as advertisement opportunities to medical device and pharmaceutical companies.

This easy access to medical education is bringing medicine to a point where patients are as much – if not more! – informed about their own disease than the doctors who treat them. Does this information, which lays at everybody’s fingertips, as well the easiness of communication among peers yielded by the digital age, threaten conventions? Or is the need for direct human contact and networking strong enough to maintain its model? These are questions that will be answered in the following decades as digital education evolves.

The survival of international medical societies depends on their members. It is no longer enough to organise a convention every two to four years. Members and delegates need more pampering to accept registration fees, mostly because the information they seek can often be found outside the association itself. Continuous medical education, credentialing process, local courses, frequent webinars, access to libraries, forums directly helping in difficult medical cases are a few measures that can justify the enrolment and the retention of members, engaging them to participate in future conventions.

The remaining question is who will continue to pay for the costs related to doctors attending conventions in an environment where heavy taxes, profit-oriented health insurance companies, expensive drugs and medical devices, and failure of some governments to provide an effective healthcare system all have an impact on medical income in general. It becomes unaffordable for some doctors to participate in conventions, especially as there are so many potentially, of interest to them. Those are the very practitioners who will likely to embrace digital education.

It is possible that doctors’ participation to conventions will decrease, and so their expertise and, in turn, the quality of their care. Medical societies have to evolve with the digital age, enhancing their presence in the day-to-day life of their members, partnering with other related societies in a kind of multidisciplinary effort to decrease the number of conventions.

Antonio A.F. De Salles, M.D., Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Neurosurgery and Radiation Therapy, Departments of Neurosurgery and Radiation Oncology, University of California Los Angeles, and Head & Founder, HCor Neuroscience, São Paulo. He is also President of the Ibero-Latin American Radiosurgery Society.  

References: / / / / Br Med J. 1936 Feb 29; 1(3921): 431. The History of the French Medical Association

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