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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Veterinary Conference Dilemmas

This week I have been at a continuing education conference.  For those who don't know, in the US most licensed professionals are required by state law to addend a given number of hours of continuing education per licensing period in order to keep their license in good standing.  For veterinarians this is typically 15-20 hours per year.  At any decently-sized 3-4 day conference an attendee can get at least that much.  So for most of us we go to one conference per year.  And I've averaged that for the 16 years I've been in practice.

These conferences can be generalized for all veterinarians, as have been the ones I attend, or they can be more specialized on surgery, dermatology, and just about any other topic.  Most of the time is spent on sitting in lectures, starting at 8-9am and finishing up around 4-5pm.  "Wet labs" (hands-on experience with patients or cadavers) give practical experience, but because they are an extra cost I don't sign up for those.  Registration is normally around $400-500, and then when you add hotel expenses, travel, and meals, it's easy to have a single conference cost over $1000.  Thankfully this is tax-deductible or will be reimbursed by the employer.

I've always enjoyed the conferences because I'm a bit of a science and medicine geek.  Why else would I be in this profession?  Each year I learn something that will allow me to be a better doctor, which of course is the point of these events being required by law.  However, I've been finding less and less new and interesting as the years have gone one.

That certainly doesn't mean that I know everything about being a vet.  Far from it!  But I try to keep up with current topics in journals and text books, not relying on a few days per year to advance my knowledge and skills.  Many of the lectures at the conferences are refreshers on things we may have forgotten since vet school, mixed with some updates.  Because certain things like ear infections are something we see daily in practice, these topics are common at conferences.  But how many updates do I need on these things when there hasn't been anything earth-shattering since the last time I learned about them?

I also run into the problem that some speakers just aren't that interesting and I find myself falling asleep as they're talking.  Or the material they cover is different enough from the lecture title that I feel a little misled.  Occasionally you'll get a biased speaker, such as one I had this weekend.  The lecture topic was "The Most Commonly Misdiagnosed Diseases".  Okay, that seemed like something that would be interesting and very relevant to my job.  The first problem I noticed was that this speaker worked for Idexx, a large company that makes diagnostic equipment and tests, some of which I have in my clinic.  Okay, not much of a problem there as companies often sponsor a speaker, and I actually like Idexx's products.  However, the lecturer spent about 15 minutes talking about a specific blood analyzer from Idexx that I likely will never have in my clinic, and all of his cases used certain data from this machine that you couldn't get from other equipment.  That was rather useless.  Then the first two cases were very straight-forward diagnoses with no discussion on how they might be misdiagnosed.  Huh?  I had planned on attending that lecture series all day, but after the first one decided to skip the others and attend different topics.

Situations like this one can make it hard to have fun at a conference, or even learn much.  Which lectures do I attend?  Which ones will I actually get good information from?  Which ones are going to cover material I already know?  Many times you simply don't know the answer until you're in the room.  Most people don't want to leave in the middle of a lecture as it might be perceived as disruptive or rude, though I did walk out one time when I couldn't stand it any longer.  Now I've taken to sitting towards the back of the room so I can either leave or play on my phone if the topic or speaker are useless to me.

And these uncertainties lead to another problem.  Many of these conferences are at popular vacation spots, such as the beach or mountains.  The one I've been at this week was in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, one of my family's favorite places to visit.  Of course, my wife and kids were with me, going to the beach or pool while I was sitting in the lectures.  And when I get bored I start thinking about how much more fun I would have with them than sitting in a dark room trying to stay awake.  Then my mind wanders to thoughts of simply skipping lectures and having fun.

That happens more times than it should.  To a large degree continuing education is on an honor system.  States don't have the resources to examine every veterinarian's information each year, so there are typically random audits.  I've never been audited, so up until now I could have gotten away with never attending any conferences in my career.  However, I'm honest enough and scared enough of an audit that I couldn't imagine completely ditching this important part of my job.  I also know that I've learned many, many things in conferences that I never learned in school and that have allowed me to be a better doctor.  

Still, the temptation is there.  And I did give in a bit this week.  My state requires 30 hours of continuing education every two years, and I'm in the first year of that cycle.  So I could get no CE this year and do all 30 next year, or any combination.  The conference I went to had a maximum of 23 hours of lectures, and I attended 15 of those.  Next year it will be easy to get the other 15 hours I need, I avoided some uninteresting speakers and topics, and I got to spend some well-deserved time with my family.