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It is not long since a medical congress was an event of the year, but such congresses are now so varied and numerous that they extend throughout the entire twelve months… (Editorialist 1903)1
Does anything change? Why do we attend congresses? Such meetings are also popular in science and engineering, literature and the arts, business and finance. But it is time to consider what is gained.
The modern medical congress
Worldwide, there may be as many as 100 000 medical meetings every year.2 Flocks of young and not so young physicians, surgeons and others take time away from their patients and labs and fly to faraway destinations to listen to others (often the same experts at different meetings), invited by somewhat obscure selection processes to entertain and instruct their peers and juniors. Several thousand may attend the larger congresses. Taxis, trains, airlines, hotels, restaurants, tailors and dress-makers, luggage manufacturers and professional conference organisers are kept busy. Continuing Medical Education (CME) points are gained, much jetlag is engendered and a great deal of carbon released into the atmosphere—as much as 10 000 tons for a middle-sized conference.3
It is undeniably exciting to go somewhere new, perhaps to another country, to meet one’s colleagues and friends in a new environment, to make new acquaintances and perhaps to learn something. But the reality is different: one often sits on uncomfortable, gilt-steel hotel chairs in a cold, over-air conditioned ballroom to listen to a resumé of material one has already read or ought to have already read, the whole accompanied by a blizzard of visual aids, often presented on several enormous multimedia screens. Inevitably, attention levels vary. People come and go during the presentations, chat to each other and fall asleep as their jetlag and breakfast overwhelm them. Often, one finds oneself seated behind someone …
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