Saturday, May 11, 2013

The way we were (Musings on the benefits of attending conferences)

Updated: 21 May 2013 
Always get new ideas, scrap others, after it's posted

May's blog title comes from my favorite Barbara Streisand song of all time, The Way We Were. Good movie too. 

As a retired technologist and educator, I often think back on 'the way we were' and discuss the past, present, and future with colleagues. Many disagreements, but we tend to agree that the 1960s to the 1980s were a wonderful time to be working in transfusion medicine.

Hence, I was sad to learn that the 3-day Durham 'Blood Group Serology' conference in the UK, offered every 2 years since 1982, has been suspended indefinitely. [Sorry. The website is long gone, so I cannot reference it.]

Over the years, Durham drew some of the glitterati of blood banking,  as well as many UK-based 'trench workers' who make the entire system work.

The reasons given for suspending the conference are a microcosm of what's happening to continuing professional development (CPD) worldwide:
  • Costs to fund the conference are hard to come by
  • Lack of training budgets means employers will not provide support for delegates to attend
  • Getting time away from work for a 3-day meeting is difficult
  • Changes to how departments are organised will likely not allow for future conferences that specialise in transfusion medicine
  • Many members of the organising committee profile are retired
The Cost

Let's examine conference costs using the AABB meeting as an example.

AABB (Funds in $US) 

An example of possible costs is given below. Costs could easily run higher depending where the conference is.

1. Plane fare to Denver, USA from Edmonton,Canada: $661, two cities relatively close ('cheap flight' search - Could be much more for direct flights at good times) 

2. Registration (member - full meeting): $595 (early discount) 

3. Accommodation: $169 to $248/night depending on hotel 4 nights: $676 to $992. Ave = $834. 

4. Food: Assume 4 breakfasts at $10 each, 2 lunches at $15, and 2 dinners at $25. Total = $120

Grand Total: $2210, probably more....

Assuming a technologist / biomedical scientist, perhaps with a mortgage and young children or teenagers (expensive to feed, cloth, entertain, fund sports activities, and school - now that parents are expected to provide many basics), was willing to take holiday time - away from family - for the conference, how many could afford - or justify to themselves and spouses - $1000s of dollars spent on CPD?

Some could afford it, some would sacrifice time, money, and family to make it a priority. But in today's workplace, that number is dwindling. Let's hypothesize why.

To me, and I could be wrong, the main reason is that too many staff do not feel particularly appreciated these days. It's the same old story of employers
  • Planning ways to decrease staff, one of their main costs, via centralized testing and processing, less skilled staff, and automation.
  • Not funding CE or CPD, which can be interpreted as, 'We really don't care if you learn more, because we plan to hire the least educated, cheapest staff.'
  • Asking staff to do more with less and to 'work smarter', as if staff were somehow dumb.
And it doesn't help that senior laboratory and medical staff always get paid time off, and perhaps even funding, to attend conferences. Moreover, they can probably afford to attend all the conferences they choose to, with or without support. But seeing well paid staff routinely attending conferences likely grates on lower paid trench workers who get no funding.

As well, senior staff may be asked to present at conferences, which usually comes with travel, accommodation and meal support. The AABB is an exception and does not fund speakers who are AABB members, at least that's what I was told a few years ago. 

So what are the benefits of employees attending scientific conferences? 

None that can be documented, if there's no accountability, which is why it helps if attendees - including medical directors - are required to present the highlights of what they learned to those who stayed at home. Why should docs be exempt from what's expected of everyone else?

Most experienced professionals acknowledge that the main benefit of attending conferences is NOT listening to the talks or even attending interactive, participatory workshops, which are more useful than passive listening to experts present their research, often with poor, undecipherable slides. 

Let's face it. If you've attended many conferences and read the journals, you know close to all of what's in the talks. 

But to novices, besides the knowledge gleaned, listening to talks by well known personalities can be thrilling. And participating in workshops gives the chance to test ideas and skills with peers.

Note: Ironically, attending talks and workshops at major conferences is valuable, maybe even most valuable, to 'new kids on the block,' who no longer get to attend. The return on investment is better in the long term because newbees are the future of any profession. The ROI on near-retirement senior staff is minimal. [Had to toss ROI into the mix because it's a buzzword of the biz-types who now manage health care organizations.]

Knowledge aside, the main conference benefit is in the networking and informal discussions that occur over a glass of beer or wine or soda pop at dinners and in bars. That's where you discover the wealth of practical and frank advise that isn't in presentations and journals.

It's where young staff once would meet peers and enjoy many a laugh.  Where they'd create 
  • Friendships to last a lifetime. 
  • Friendships that sustain careers during tough times. 
  • Friendships that make personal sacrifices worthwhile.
At all conferences, but especially national or international ones, young professionals could meet colleagues from far and wide whose enthusiasm and insights would inspire them to higher achievements.

Thankfully, some of the good stuff still happens for novices at local and regional conferences. And some get involved with national conferences held in their region, mainly because they're the ones required to do the work to make them happen.

But the joy of attending major conferences is mostly gone now, at least for the many, largely invisible, trench workers who keep the system going. 

And, as noted by the Durham committee, many of those who made CPD / CE events happen are retired or near retiring. 

Who will take their place? Likely not young staff, most of whom have no experience in the joys of CE / CPD provided by attending conferences.

  • One of the more fun conferences, CSTM 2000 in Quebec City (As an 'early adopter' of Internet technologies since 1994, I presented a half-day workshop on 'Using the Internet in Transfusion Medicine'. Seems laughable now.)
  • The way we were (Barbra Streisand)

As usual, comments are most welcome.

Please see all comments below. 

Reply to Elaine Van Oyen
Thanks, Elaine.

 I agree that organizations see knowledge and networking as most beneficial to staff who can make actually make changes suggested at 'meetings-of-the-minds' (nice turn of phrase). 

Yes, senior staff  - the 'deciders' - should attend conferences, but must it be mutually exclusive to a few junior staff attending too? 

Fact is, senior medical staff can afford to attend and pay $3000- $5000 out of their own pockets. Many junior staff cannot. 

Which hospitals cannot afford $6000/year to send 2 to 3 junior transfusion service staff to conferences? Or $30,000 to send staff from 5 clinical labs? 

Transfusion services in Canada are regionalized. Which health care regions cannot spend $18,000/yr for 2-3 staff from 3 centralized transfusion testing facilities to attend?

Judging by recent events at Alberta Health Services (AHS), some senior employees claim 6 figure mega-bucks annually in expenses for travel, accommodation, restaurants and booze. AHS routinely signs contracts that allow even disgraced senior staff to get $1 million+ in golden handshakes. 

But they won't fund CE for laboratory staff. What's wrong with this picture?


  1. Anonymous6:34 PM

    Hi Pat,
    Another thought provoking and pertinent posting.
    It is indeed a huge shame that meetings such as BGS Durham are no longer sustainable. As a now senior member of the transfusion community I remember with a certain nostalgia being a young trainee scientist in the UK attending both the Reading and Durham meetings and getting to see the great and good of transfusion. Where else for example would I have got to see the "British Mafia" (as they were known) over from the States -- George Garraty, Peter Issitt, John Judd and Malcolm Beck, along with George Bird, Joyce Poole etc etc? Inspirational and as you say the casual networking in the bar and at dinner provided the hidden value that is so often overlooked in conference or meeting attendance.
    Even with the undoubted staffing and budgetary limitiations one thing I would say to young(er) colleagues is "don't be afraid to ask" to attend meeting or even international conferences.
    Something I've definitely found by experience is that one of the best ways to get to conferences and meetings (even internationally) is by actually being proactive and expressing an interest to attend. On so many occasions I've seen colleagues bemoan missing out because they were waiting for someone to approach them to apply!!!

  2. British mafia - love it! I've heard George Garratty speak in person, also Patrick Mollison. What a thrill!

    Learned most of what I know from Issitt's 'Applied Blood Group Serology', read cover to cover as a novice. John Judd's my idol, because I love his use of predictive value theory.

    Thanks for advice to youngsters to ask. Rings true! Never get what you want if you don't try.

  3. Anonymous5:50 PM

    The way we were indeed!

    I have long been a supporter of sending "junior" techs to conferences, but I know of organizations organizations that do not have the same perspective. I think their concern is that the networking and knowledge bank is more effective for members of the organization who can actually make changes suggested at these meetings-of-the-minds.

    Although this may be perceived to be efficacious for the organization, I prefer to think of CE (and specifically attending conferences) as analogous to interest paid on an investment: the longer it has to go, the more impact it will have in the end. Conferences are definitely (as you indicated) a way of investing in our futures.

    Someone will have to do my pretransfusion testing when I need surgery for my arthritic knees or broken hip in another 20 years, unless, of course, by then a way has been found to eliminate the need for transfusion of homologous red cells.

    Due to financial constraints, some organizations have eliminated conferences for anyone. I hope this isn't a telling comment on the future of continuing education.

    Thanks for the great article.

    Elaine Van Oyen
    Calgary, Alberta, Canada

  4. Hi Elaine,

    Thanks for the great feedback. Please see main blog for my comments.