Conferences Provide Time for Learning, Connecting, Recharging

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, November 4, 2008

Take advantage of these educational opportunities and time away from the office to explore foreign places and meet new people

It’s medical conference season. I find myself travelling away from home more in the fall to attend conferences. Yet another flight; yet another hotel. It’s a good thing I really love going to conferences. I love learning new things, meeting new people, seeing new places. As I reflect more on this, I realize there are four main reasons why we doctors attend medical conferences—to learn, network, travel and relax—and while there needs to be one of these reasons present, any combination of the four is possible.

We go to conferences to learn. This is still one of the best ways to maintain and update our education, knowledge and skills. It’s like one-stop shopping for the science and art of medicine. We learn a great amount in one location, from a number of experts, on a variety of related topics. While much of our continuing education is now available online, attending in person remains the best way to hone a specific skill set.

We go to conferences to network, to meet our colleagues and friends, and get caught up. Professional connections are made and developed. We meet speakers, top researchers and clinicians who share our area of interest and can also share experience and expertise, and make plans to collaborate in the future. Personal connections are made, too. Little traditions and rituals can develop. I have a group of women colleagues that goes to the same conference, and we manage an annual day at the spa together while there. Then there is the group at another conference that has a “martini moment” the first evening. However, it’s not just a place to meet peers from other cities. I am embarrassed to say there are some colleagues from my home town who I only see at conferences in other cities. We just seem to be too busy to socialize at home.

Meeting peers at conferences, however, can sometimes be an emotionally difficult experience, bringing out feelings of competition or insecurity. When we listen to what others are doing, our own achievements may pale in comparison: “He was a classmate of mine, and while I just see patients in the office, he has gone on to develop an international reputation and be the world expert in this field.” We can feel intimidated, feel too shy to speak up, say hello or ask questions. It helps to remember that we have all achieved a great deal, just by getting into and completing medical school. We all make choices; we have made ours to practise medicine the way we do, and our colleagues have made theirs. There is no right choice; they are different and complementary, and there is a role and need for us all. A good goal when we go to a conference is to meet two new people, to consciously push past our personal insecurities and reach out and talk to people we do not know. While hard to start, it yields amazing results.

We go to conferences to travel. Many of us often extend the trip at either end, because it is a great way to go to a new city or country and explore. The extra time it may take to plan and prepare pays off when we sample local sounds, sights and tastes. Many conferences plan outings for delegates and their families, and it is definitely worth taking advantage of these as they have been well-planned by the host city. The highlight of a recent conference in Edinburgh was a private dinner at Edinburgh Castle, complete with our own tour of the crown jewels, being piped in to dinner, the ceremonial serving of the haggis, whisky tasting and a full Highland band leading the procession at the end of a memorable evening.

We go to conferences to relax. While we are still working and learning, our usual daily responsibilities of work are left behind—we do not have to see patients, run an office or teach, and can just focus on our own learning needs. Colleagues agree it is much harder to attend a conference in their own city as they usually try to do it all, and find themselves running around and not able to relax. Even if you are presenting at a conference, the rest of the day is available for your own interests, without your usual work responsibilities. If our families join us, we are more able to spend quality time with them, doing new things without the usual household concerns such as cooking, cleaning and driving to lessons.

A reminder is in order: While we are making new acquaintances, remember that this is still a professional endeavour, and our behaviour needs to be in keeping with this. So, while it is great to socialize, go out for a drink and even sing karaoke in Scottish pubs, we need to remain in control so we can best enjoy ourselves, our colleagues and the situation.

Finally, as conferences are positive for us in so many ways, use the “Tarzan Rule” to keep them happening. While swinging through the jungle, Tarzan does not let go of one vine without having the next one in hand. So, do not leave a conference without having planned your next one.

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.