Should Medical Students Attend Academic Conferences?

By Eve Purdy

Originally posted June 10, 2013 on Manu et Corde

This past week I attended the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians annual conference in Vancouver. I agree with the conclusions made by Brent ThomaChris Bond and Ken Milne who have already reviewed the meeting herehere and here. Instead of going over many of the same highlights, I want to explore a more fundamental question. Should medical students attend academic conferences? It all started with the below twitter conversation between a few of my professors that came across my feed while I was out at #CAEP13.

This conversation deserves more than the 140 characters that twitter permits, so here is the forum for that discussion. In this post I will point out a few of the benefits and drawbacks for medical students attending conferences based on a bit of my own experience and some literature. I hope that it provides a jumping off point for some good discussion around the topic.

The Benefits

    • Inspiration: When the 10-year-old little league player gets the chance to see her favourite stars play in a big stadium, lights shining down with all the other excitement that accompanies professional sports, something special can happen. That 10-year-old might go home and work a little bit harder on her shot, she might push herself to run a little bit faster in practice and she might dream a little, or even a lot, bigger about her future. Medical students are, in more ways than I would like to admit, not much different than that 10-year-old and academic conferences not much different than the big stadium and fanfare that goes along with it. Though I recognize that it is first necessary to “Be A Good Clinician“, every once in a while it’s okay to dream beyond that. One of the most inspiring trends at CAEP was seeing the experts continuously looking for ways to be better. The pros were fighting for ways to shave seconds off of CPR interruptions, looking for ways to provide better care to geriatric patients, finding new avenues to advocate for patients, using new tools for knowledge translation, and exploring the best ways to teach medical students and residents. Bottom line, I left Vancouver more excited about medicine than when I arrived.
    • Learning: Though some of the talks went over my head, I was definitely able to take home some key learning points, or “pearls”, that I’ll keep in mind as I head into clerkship. Here are just a few of the many that I was able capture:
      • Teaching: A medical student rarely, if ever, gets to be the expert. Heck, half the time we don’t even know where the bathroom is and we are too scared to ask. At conferences medical students occasionally get the opportunity to be the expert. We get to have professors ask questions, not because we are being tested but because we can speak about something that is interesting, something that we are passionate about. We get to tell other people about something that we have worked hard on. Who doesn’t love that opportunity? The abstracts of a few of some amazing medical students can be found in the Supplemental Abstracts Issue of CJEM. Check them out to see what I mean!
      • Networking to Connect: I had the awesome opportunity of connecting with a few mentors across the country who have been helping me with this blog. Despite the wonders of email and social media, there is something different about meeting face-to-face. We shared ideas, challenges and left with some interesting plans for the future. I imagine the value of this type of interaction is true whether the subject of interest is social media, resuscitation or pediatric emergency medicine etc.
      • Fun: This doesn’t require much of an explanation. Hanging out and learning with people who have similar interests is always a good time. In between sessions, exploring Vancouver and meeting up with friends a few of us made this video highlighting Canadian FOAM. It is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of fun had. Thanks to Brent ThomaKen Milne (and his daughter Sage), Chris BondStella Yiu and Elisha T for making this happen!

The Drawbacks

      • Inspiration (yes I know this was in the benefits section as well!): Medical students are easily inspired. Though this is usually a good thing,  in terms of conference attendance it might actually have unintended consequences on career choice. Is it the specialty that inspires the student or is it the conference? Will students who attend conferences in a certain specialty, prematurely head in that direction without exploring all the options? Maybe, maybe not? I think the question deserves further attention.
      • Networking for the sake of networking: There is occasionally a perceived need by some medical students to meet all the program directors and “make a good impression”. I’m no good at this type of thing and at times I felt awkward with the pressure to do so. Perhaps this is my introverted side shining through. I am all for connecting (see above) but I’m not sure that the focus on “getting known” is a good enough reason for medical students to attend conferences. Maybe I am wrong. As I’m not really in a position to comment, I would be interested in thoughts from those on the other side of these interactions.
      • Contextualization: A fair concern is that medical students do not have the clinical experience to put into proper context the research that is being discussed at conferences. I am sure that each medical student who left CAEP has brought up something he or she learned at the conference only to have a preceptor refute the validity in a given clinical situation. I would argue that this discussion is a worthwhile one to have, but for those teaching us it might start to get frustrating.
      • $$$ and time: Medical students lack both. This is an even bigger problem during clerkship when time at a conference means time out of the hospital and a few days away from a rotation. Rarely the rotation and conference topic are the same. Some schools are paying for conference fees/travel for students who are presenting but is this money well spent?  Why do they do it? I don’t know.
      • Focus: Some argue that medical students shouldn’t be focused on learning the newest and latest about a given a topic but that we should instead be focused on learning the basics. Perhaps we need to redefine how we think about basics, I would think that they should represent the latest and greatest. Some also argue that the focus of the conference is not medical students and having them there takes away for others. I hope that’s not true.

The Literature

I couldn’t find any evidence directly related to medical students attending conferences but there are some interesting articles from other fields.

“Never Too Soon: Music Ed Students at Professional Conferences” outlines some of the benefits of education students attending academic conferences. The most unique part of this article was the use of “advisors” that students could meet with before the conference to help them plan what sessions to attend and how to make the most out of the experience. They also met after the conference with the same advisors with a post conference portfolio to highlight and discuss what they learned. Maybe this would be a good approach for medical students?

Other reviews of students attending conferences can be found here and here.

Is it Love or Lust?

You might fall in love. No, not with someone (at least not with my luck!) but with a specialty. You might go to a conference and find yourself knowing, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” It might truly be love at first sight and represent the beginning of a meaningful life’s work. After all, some med school sweethearts stay together.

You might fall in lust. No, not with someone (at least not with my luck!) but with a specialty. You might go to a conference and find yourself thinking, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” but instead of becoming that lasting and stable passion you hoped for, your interest  takes a short but intense course. Hopefully there is time to determine that you weren’t meant to be together before you tie the knot with the CaRMS match.

You won’t know whether it is love or lust by attending a conference alone. I imagine that other experiences over a longer period of time that represent the day to day realities of the job are a much more realistic way to feel out if you are meant to be together.  Conferences, just like online dating profiles, make specialties look good. As medical students we have a job to put our critical appraisal skills to the test and recognize the “conference bias” and reflect on our own desire to feel like we belong.

The Bottom Line

      • If conferences are an important aspect of scholarship (we’ll save this debate for a much later date) and scholarship is an important aspect of being a good physician, then it might make sense to include in this forum of scholarship.
      • The opportunity to foster meaningful connections exists. Embrace those opportunities when they come up.
      • If I can find the money and the time to go to another conference I know that I might just learn something and have a bit of fun.
      • I know that my n=1 study is not good enough to change practice. More research about the place of academic conferences in medical education is needed. How do we study their value? What outcomes do we assess? What is the cost-benefit ratio?
      • We also need to understand how having medical students present affects the experience for other, more experienced, conference-goers.
      • Before going to conferences medical students might consider meeting with a mentor to discuss why they are going, what they hope to get out of it and make a plan for achieving those objectives.
      • CAEP was awesome (yes, this conclusion is subject to bias) and all joking aside, I will need to spend some time figuring out whether it was love or lust, while keeping my mind open to other possibilities as I head into clerkship.

Thanks for reading and I am very interested to hear your perspective on medical students attending conferences. Should we attend? Why? Why not? If you liked this article please Facebook, tweet and email away to colleagues and friends. Share any thoughts you have in the comments below.

-Eve Purdy (@purdy_eve)

Thanks to Dr. van Wylick (@rvanwylick) for reviewing this post and getting the conversation started.

One thought on “Should Medical Students Attend Academic Conferences?

  1. Reblogged this on Okuduklarım and commented:
    Patoloji kongrelerinin kampüslerde yapılmasını istememin nedenlerinden biri, meraklı tıp fakültesi öğrencilerinin de girip bazı oturumları dinlemelerini sağlamak.
    Konunun bu tarafını ise pek düşünmemiştim. Gerçekten tıp fakültesi öğrencileri “akademik toplantılar”a katılmalılar mı?
    Bu konu ile ilgili bir blog yazısı.

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