Mythbuster Ioannidis: Are Medical Conferences Really Useful?

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There’s a typical array of clinically relevant articles in the upcoming issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, but I’m betting that just one will go viral among doctors: A powerful broadside against conferencesby that renowned mythbuster of medicine, Dr. John P. A. Ioannidis of Stanford.

“Dr. John Ioannidis has spent his career challenging his peers by exposing their bad science,” is how The Atlantic summed him up in a rich 2010 profile headlined “Lies, Damned Lies and Medical Science.” 

After many years of questioning assumptions and seeking harder data on everything from surgery customs to drug studies, Dr. Ioannidis is now taking on a major cultural institution of medicine: The conference. (Some might call it “the boondoggle, junket, fuel-wasting, resume-padding, often-not-peer-reviewed conference.”) This latest target is particularly striking given that the Atlantic piece says that “His work has been widely accepted by the medical community; it has been published in the field’s top journals, where it is heavily cited; and he is a big draw at conferences.”

Dr. Ioannidis begins his JAMA piece by estimating that conferences by medical societies and the like may well number more than 100,000 a year if you include local meetings; they are a dominant feature of all health-related fields. He asks:

Do medical conferences serve any purpose? In theory, these meetings aim to disseminate and advance research, train, educate, and set evidence-based policy. Although these are worthy goals, there is virtually no evidence supporting the utility of most conferences. Conversely, some accumulating evidence suggests that medical congresses may serve a specific system of questionable values that may be harmful to medicine and health care.

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