Why You Should Be Going To Conferences-Dan Schwester
I love conferences. And you should too.
Since I became a paramedic almost 20 years ago; I’ve seen the growth of conferences where EMS clinicians have been welcomed grow from one or two, into an entire spectrum of multi-day programs that encompass lectures, group sessions, hands on training, and almost anything you could think of in paramedicine. Far from what you may hear in your alphabet-soup recert class or mandatory refresher, there is a place for EMTs and paramedics in the conference world. And going to one can change how you look at your job, career, or vocation.
So why spend your hard-earned money on going beyond the minimum and attending a conference, symposium, or something similar? I could go on and on in multiple ways, but I’m going to break it down to a few that sell it for me. Your mileage may vary, of course; and that’s what the comments are for, gang. I think there are enormous benefits for you going to any conference.
By attending conferences, you get to get your hands on lots of items that you may not carry in your shop, but may have a real utility. Generally, every conference to some degree lives on manufacturer support. That means sponsors and exhibits that not only give you free pens and flashlights (important in its own right), but the ability to see, handle, and play with the most current and future tools and tech that are out there in prehospital care. The first time I touched a video laryngoscope? Conference. Mechanical CPR? Conference. You get the idea. All of these things are available for you and yours to examine. Most importantly, they have the sales people there.
Yes, I know, sales people are there to sell. However, this is where you come in. Manufacturer reps are wealths of knowledge on THEIR product. While you’re playing with their new gadget, ask questions. Think of situations where YOU could have used that piece of equipment, and run it by them to see what information they provide. Then, go look at their competitor’s stuff and ask the same thing. You will come away with a lot of information that you can use.
“But, I don’t do any purchasing!”
No, maybe you don’t. I didn’t for a long time. But as an experienced paramedic, I found that people in my shop listened when the opportunity rose to tell them about any equipment, gear, simulator, etc. that had potential for an application. And no, every thing I liked didn’t get on my agency’s budgetary wish list. But some did. And eventually, you may get the opportunity in this profession to make decisions on that type of thing. Think of it as practice and professional development.
Attending conferences give you the ability to network. This is a critical skill for anyone in a world where jobs, companies, and health care systems are here one minute, gone or assimilated the next. You get the ability to meet and interact with people in management, medical directors, researchers, other agencies, all on pretty equal footing. The potential for you to gain knowledge, skills, and information that will directly benefit you is very high. You never know what (or when) those things will gain you. I’ve gotten job offers, been warned of potential nightmares, and gained valuable insights from sitting and talking with people at conferences. I’ve met people from around the world, spoken to people I would never had the opportunity to interact with; had I not started going to conferences. As an aside, it was at a conference that Overrun Productions was hatched. Just saying.
Going to conferences means travel. By travelling, you get an insight into other places, cultures, food, social life, language, and an altogether different look from what you’re used to . This is a good thing. It gives you a perspective on life in general. Even better, if you get the opportunity to talk with local EMS providers, DO IT! Not only will you learn a lot about the common saying, “If you’ve seen one EMS system, you’ve seen one EMS system”; but you may be able to bring back an idea that would work for your place as well. It was at a conference that I got to meet a few medics from the UK, and I came away utterly impressed at their emphasis on education over procedures and the standing they have in their health care system overall. It was a great lesson to take back with me.
Conferences expose you to cutting-edge education that you will NOT get from the canned lessons and recert programs at home. Unless your education staff makes it a priority to go get this stuff for you, the only way you get exposed to this is by finding it yourself. Texts are generally 5-10 years behind the current practice; and so are the alphabet soup courses. Journal articles are better, but to get the latest stuff, the way people practice today; you have to go to a conference and listen to these people. You’ll learn about the papers and practices that will come out in the near future. You’ll get to see what is in the windshield of EMS, rather than the side window or rear-view mirror. And even if you don’t drive clinical or operational practice at your place; you can pass this information on to those who do. And whether or not they use this information; YOU have it. Once you have information; it’s yours forever. If there’s a place that doesn’t value it; I can promise that there is a place that does. This makes you more marketable in an interview or speaking to potential employers, and in a world where almost no one stays with the same employer their entire career, this is job security.
So what are the downsides? Honestly, I don’t think there are many. But there are a couple. How they affect you is generally an individual issue, and you need to weigh them individually. First, there is a cost involved in conferencing. You will have to schedule time off, if your place doesn’t give you time to attend. You have to pay to get in, and there are travel, food, lodging, and transport costs involved with attending any conference. One nice side note is that for most, a lot of these costs can be tax-deductible as work-related, so save all your receipts and discuss with your accountant. If not, many employers may reimburse at least some of the cost involved, which makes going to a conference a little easier on the credit card limit. Check with your training officer or agency.
Another downside is one that we have touched on when discussing social media: the idea of career immolation. Think about it: you’re away from home, no wife/kids/dog, generally not driving, surrounded by people who are sort of working, in a hotel or place with easy access to alcohol and expense accounts. Depending on where you go and with whom you associate, there is a significant chance of shenanigans that can come back to bite you. And in a world of social media, trust me: what happens in a conference does NOT stay at a conference. Simply put: don’t be that person. You’re not cool, you will be talked about, and it can hurt your career. In a worst case scenario, you could lose your job for being an idiot at a conference. Have fun, definitely enjoy yourself, but do not be the person who has to explain themselves the next day or on your return to work.
All that being said, how do you get started in the world of conferences? You don’t have to travel to Germany or Australia for SMACC, (although I will say that Berlin was amazing). Start by going local. Look at what’s available in your area, and plan to be there. A local symposium, state conference, or even a grand rounds session is a great start and will expand your knowledge base. Local has the benefit of being able to sleep in your own bed, and if you get a few colleagues together you carpool and have a great time of it. Most teaching hospitals, stroke, and trauma centers have education outreach, and this is a great start for your conferencing.
I think that the national EMS conferences are a great next step. They’re well known, lots of attendees, generally in big population centers, and they have the clout to get some really interesting speakers and experiences that you may not get locally. They are multi-day events, but you don’t have to go to the whole thing to get a benefit, and the continuing education credits are pretty much accepted everywhere. For the most part, they are located in places where most of the country can get to at least one economically, and they move around; so if one year it’s out of your budget, you can try next year.
After that, start looking at some of the things that interest you. I bought into the Free Online Medical Education (FOAMed) movement, and sought out the opportunities that social media has put out there that I might not have gotten. In the last couple of years, I attended the Essentials of EMCrit conference at Mount Sinai in NYC, as well as dasSMACC in Berlin, Germany. I budgeted for it, and got amazing opportunities to speak with thought leaders in emergency, critical care, and prehospital medicine.
Once you’ve reached peak conference, the sky’s the limit. I’m always looking for a new opportunity. I love speaking with people who are passionate about taking care of people, and every chance I get, I’m going to a conference. It makes me a better clinician, it helps me take care of my patients better, and it puts my profession on par with the rest of medicine.
Go to a conference. You’ll thank me later.