How to get the most out of a professional conference

March 5, 2010

Can you justify the time and cost away from your office to attend a conference? If you go, how do you get the most for your time and money?

Key Points

It's a situation many primary care doctors have faced: A brochure advertising a conference or medical society meeting arrives. The topic is exciting. The location is enticing. It's a chance to get continuing medical education (CME) credits and, perhaps, catch up with old friends and colleagues, often in a popular tourist destination.

But then reality sets in. Can you justify the cost and time away from your practice to attend? And if you do go, how do you get the most for your time and money?"

SHOULD I GO?

Content is the primary consideration for Richard Roberts, MD, JD, a family practitioner in Belleville, Wisconsin, and professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. "The first test for me is, is this a conference with content and speakers that are high-quality and relevant to my needs?"

He adds that medical conferences sometimes focus on narrow topics or present academic studies that bear little relevance to community-based practices. "You want to hear from people who understand your reality, your kinds of patients, your practice settings," he says.

KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE

If you've decided to attend a meeting, the next questions are: "How do I make the most of my time while I'm there?" and "How do I hold down my expenses?"

The answer in both cases, according to those who organize meetings and those who attend them frequently, is "plan ahead." It's important to know in advance what you hope to get out of the meeting.

"One of the most important things to do is identify and prioritize. Why are you going?" says Lori Buster, director of meetings and conferences for the Medical Group Management Association, which will hold its annual conference in October in New Orleans. "Is it because you need CME? Is it professional development? Finding answers to business challenges? Do your homework before you go, because there's nothing worse than sitting in your hotel room the night before a meeting starts, madly looking through the program trying to decide how you're going to spend those next few days."

Adds Stephen Downey, director of internal and external affairs for the American Osteopathic Association, "It's like college. You don't just show up the first day and start. You figure out the classes you need and the times that are best for you beforehand, then you try to get into those."

Virtually every medical society posts its meeting schedules online well before the start of the meeting, and many include meeting-planning tools that can be printed out or downloaded to personal digital assistant devices.

For many doctors, the main reason for attending a medical conference or society meeting is the opportunity to earn a large number of CME credits in a short time span, making the conference location less important.

"You can go for CME in some place like Florida or Cancun, but I'd rather go to my state academy, where I feel they really work hard to pack in the credit hours," says Jen Brull, MD, a family physician in Plainville, Kansas. "If I'm going for a vacation, I'd rather take my family than spend a lot of money being someplace on my own."