Face-to-Face and Heart-to-Heart: I Love the ASC Annual Meeting! Do You?

The ASC Annual Scientific Meeting is just six months away — I hope that everyone has the dates saved on their calendar and that you are making plans to attend! Our Annual Scientific Meeting is the centerpiece or our society, and an event that our membership always looks forward to. This year should be particularly special since it is the ASC’s 60th Anniversary Diamond Jubilee, and what better place to celebrate than Las Vegas!

I have been attending the ASC’s Annual Scientific Meeting since I was a second year resident – almost 30 years! In fact, in all this time, I have only missed two Meetings (I had a good excuse – these were the years that my daughters were born), so the ASC Annual Meeting has certainly been an important part of my professional life. Like all practitioners, whether in academia or in a community or commercial setting, I continue to find that the scientific sessions, workshops, and posters help hone my diagnostic skills, keep me current on what’s happening in our field, and stimulate new ideas for how my lab and I might grow. Plus in my younger days, the abstract deadline provided me with a goal that served me well in building the academic side of my career, a strategy that I highly recommend to others today.

The ASC’s Annual Scientific Meeting has been so valuable to me that I was therefore surprised to read a recent article challenging the value of meetings like ours. “Are Medical Conferences Useful? And For Whom?” appeared in the March 28 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA 2012; 307:1257-1258). The author, John P. A. Ioannidis, MD, DSc from the Stanford Prevention Research Center provocatively comments that there is no evidence that any of the estimated 100,000 medical meetings each year truly disseminate and advance research, educate or set evidence-based policy. He even asserts that meetings may be serving questionable values, and notes that meetings may lead to inappropriate “herding” after opinion leaders since those on the podium may be chosen based on their ability to navigate power circles rather than on merit or originality. Dr. Ioannides also shares the frequent critique that drug, device and biotechnology industries may exert inappropriate influence making it difficult, if not impossible, to avoid conflicts of interest, and he questions the scientific value of research presentations since abstracts can only be superficially reviewed. He poses the question as to whether there are more effective and more cost-efficient ways to educate and share knowledge today, such as in small face-to-face meetings and brain-storming sessions, as well as through electronic formats and tools.

Dr. Ioannidis raises many important issues worthy of our attention, but I have to disagree that annual meetings have diminished in value and that they can be easily replaced by other methods. Electronic communication tools certainly have expanded our ability to meet the missions of our Society since we can now make information and education available and convenient year-round. We can also connect with more members since we know that relatively few are able to travel to a meeting regularly. These reasons are why we have developed our Cyto-econferences, for example, and why members enjoy sharing information and ideas via our Listserv. But there is still incredible value in the sense of community and the personal connections that can only be derived from meeting in person. The opportunity to have informal, spontaneous live conversations with colleagues new and old is an important dynamic. You’ve probably noticed — and enjoyed — the energy and engagement at our Meeting during our “hot topic” open microphone sessions, roundtables discussions, video microscopy sessions, question sessions following platform and open sessions, and in the exhibit halls and at social events.

In fact, informal face-to-face communication and the opportunity this provides for individuals to explore outside their own organization is one of the most important elements in creating high-functioning teams, according to recent work at MIT’s Human Dynamic Laboratory (Pentland A. The science of building great teams. Harv Bus Review April 2012; pp. 61-70). The MIT group found that the best team players are those who seek ideas from outside their home group, and that these are the individuals who become important connectors engaging co-workers around these ideas later. Connectors create a more successful and productive team and a better work environment. And, as the MIT group points out, effective connectors are not necessarily extroverts – the best connectors practice “energized but focused listening” as they absorb ideas and then spread them around. Each of you, as ASC members, are also part of a team in your own laboratories. When you attend our Annual Scientific Meeting, you are not the only one who benefits – you become the important connector that can benefit your entire laboratory team. You participate in the energy, engagement and family-like community that the ASC Annual Scientific Meeting is well-known for, and you can be a source of team energy, as well as information, above and beyond what would be possible from online learning or electronic tools alone. It is likely that those that criticize the role of annual meetings may not fully appreciate this down-stream value in team building and productivity since these benefits aren’t easy to measure or see very directly.

I realize that in our era of limited travel funds and tight hospital and family budgets that it is not possible for members to attend our Meeting every year for 30 years, as I have been fortunate enough to do. But I hope that you do find our Annual Scientific Meeting valuable enough that occasionally you can muster up the resources to attend, even if it means dipping into your own pocketbook a bit – this is an excellent investment in your career in many ways. Our Scientific Program Committee, led by Dr. Dina Mody, has worked hard to ensure that our upcoming Meeting is excellent, interesting and energizing, and that it addresses the current and future needs of our membership. In addition to our regular and beloved program items, like the Diagnostic Cytology Seminar, Panel Luncheons and Video Microscopy Tutorials, we’ll be talking about the controversies surrounding workload limits, updating the most recent terminology for squamous lesions of the lower genital tract, and training our members for the first time via a hands-on workshop on ultrasound-guided FNA. We have outstanding guest speakers who are inspiring and enlightening – we’ll learn about new cancer-causing viruses (HPV is not the only one!!) since the on-going discovery of these type of viruses may affect our practice as well, and we’re diversifying our perspective on cytologic diagnosis with a talk from the world of veterinary cytopathology on what human and animal practitioners can learn from each other as we face common problems and challenges. An extra special treat is a lecture from NASA astronaut and physician Dr. Scott Parazynski whose story of innovation and problem-solving in the unknown and potentially threatening environment of space serves as an excellent example to all of us on the value of teamwork and optimism when searching for creative solutions to our own challenging and changing work environment. And of course, each and every year, everyone involved with the Annual Scientific Meeting works conscientiously to ensure that our Meeting is fair, that we showcase quality and merit, and that we are as free of bias as possible.

So start making your travel plans — I think our Annual Scientific Meeting will be valuable, fun and worthy of our Diamond Anniversary in every way. I’m having fun with this blog (over 1500 individuals have read it!!), but social media cannot replace the personal connection that we all cherish at the Annual Meeting. Let’s meet face-to-face in Las Vegas – I’m looking forward to seeing you!!!

Lydia Pleotis Howell MD, ASC President