by Jennifer Nicole Dienst | January 01, 2008

illustrationMedical meeting planners have so many rules and regulations to keep track of, the needs of their attendees can get lost in the process. What is most important to doctors, and how can organizers maximize what they learn?

This month, the Healthcare Convention Exhibitors Association will release the results of a two-year study on health professionals’ preferences at medical meetings that addresses these questions. (See “Why Go to Exhibits?”)

Jeremy Williams, who serves as president of HealthSTAR Communications as well as CEO of the Photosound Group, which gathered the data, explains that in-depth interviews were conducted with more than 200 health-care professionals, 72 percent of whom were doctors. “We investigated their needs and motivation before a conference and explored their mind-set during a conference.”

The HCEA study revealed that of all possible sources of continuing education, doctors rank medical conferences third, behind the Internet and professional medical journals.

While learning is the top reason for doctors to attend conferences, networking is the second-highest priority, says Williams.

“We hear of virtual this and virtual that, but the human engagement factor is very important,” he adds. In addition, the study found that doctors aren’t impressed with large lecture halls filled with thousands of people. “Big isn’t always best,” Williams notes. “You get lost in a sea of frenzy. Sometimes you can’t even see a speaker.”

To help amplify some of the HCEA study’s findings, M&C asked a number of doctors to discuss their biggest gripes, wants and needs at continuing medical education conferences. Much of what they said makes good sense for any kind of learning session.

1. Be less general, more specific.

Some doctors say special, specific education sessions should take a priority over the amorphous general session at CME conferences.

“I prefer to go to meetings with lots of casual, small-group sessions,” notes Dr. Jeffrey Miller, an orthopedic surgeon based in New London, Conn. “I want to be able to discuss topics like complications and pitfalls of procedures without having to stand up in front of hundreds of people in a huge auditorium.”

And if a big-name speaker is scheduled, why not add on smaller afternoon roundtable discussions where doctors can have one-on-one time? “I find it helpful to further explore facets of a topic with the speakers,” Miller says. “You feel connected to the innovators and thinkers of the field.”

In a previous planning position for a medical association, Karen MacFarland, who now serves as meetings manager for the College Park, Md.-based American Association of Physicists in Medicine, would fill a ballroom with round tables, with a topic card and a speaker at each table so attendees could make their way from conversation to conversation. “People were beating down the door to get to the smaller roundtable discussions,” she recalls.

2. Plan for weekends and holidays.

Most physicians can’t take an afternoon off, much less a whole week. Planning a conference over a weekend ensures more doctors in private practice have a chance to attend.

“When I was part of a large medical group, I could take off for weeklong conferences,” Miller says. “But now, since I’m in private practice, I usually go to conferences where I leave on a Wednesday evening, so I only have to take off Thursday and Friday. Or, I look for conferences on a long weekend when I would have Monday off anyway.”

Dr. Charlie Grimes, chief of radiology at the Maine Medical Center in Portland, agrees entirely: “It helps if I can work the conference into the weekend. I tend to take only a partial week off because I need to get back to the office.”