One of the most significant current changes in the organisation of medical education in Europe is the falling level of pharmaceutical company financial support for congresses. This reduction is affecting many areas of medicine, including neurology, and is one which has pluses and minuses. The reduction is partly because of doubt that lavish sponsorship makes good business sense, but mainly because of a tightening of the European regulatory environment governing what pharmaceutical companies are permitted to do. There are now new restrictions on what can be offered for the travel or accommodation of delegates to conferences, restrictions on entertainment, and restrictions on the format and content of sponsored events. Because of this reduction, it is inevitable that congresses will become smaller and more focused, and costs will have to be reduced. A new balance has to be achieved, and hospitals and universities are also likely to be asked to provide more CME opportunities and more of the costs of CME. An example of this new trend is a new annual conference/course (1) organised by the UCL Institute of Neurology and National Hospital Queen Square, London. This aims to provide CME in the form of a comprehensive update on the practical hospital management of neurological diseases. It has features which reflect the changing environment: the cost of registration is kept extremely low, the speakers are unpaid, the setting is a university lecture hall, a ‘course-like’ programme, and the faculty which is almost all local (Queen Square based). There is a strong focus on quality of the content and presentations and there will be extensive conference material hand-outs. Sponsorship is sought, but in modest ways, and the primary aim of the conference is education. These sorts of trends – smaller congresses, hospital/university based, low cost to delegates, local faculties, focused programme, emphasis on programme and handouts – are likely to become much more the norm. The key for organizers is to maintain quality, and I feel personally upbeat about this, for most of the excessive cost of current conferences is not directly focused on programme improvement; and a greater emphasis on the content and quality of the teaching is surely welcome. Another important feature of medical conferences is the opportunity provided to meet colleagues and to network – and this aspect too can be maintained at little cost. Although pharmaceutical company sponsorship has almost always been entirely ethical in most of the major European conferences, its prominence has raised questions of propriety in some quarters, and a reduction in the sponsorship will also improve transparency in an age when medicine is under a continual spotlight. Another important educational development, which too is in part due to the changing environment, is the increasing use of e-learning. However, valuable as this is, it is an adjunct to, and not a replacement for, congresses – for nothing can replace the personal contact and interactions with colleagues. There is a possibility that reduced sponsorship income will impact on the professional associations and societies (such as EAN), as often much of the income needed to fulfil their missions derives from surpluses made at congresses, and this will require wise leadership. The EAN will surely be a European beacon of education (both of e-learning and congresses), and it will be fascinating to see how the EAN congresses, which are in an already outstanding tradition, evolve in the next few years.
1. Neurology 2015: leading edge neurology for the practising clinician (see – http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ion/articles/courses/neurology)
Simon Shorvon is Consultant Neurologist and Professor in Clinical Neurology at the National Hospital and UCL Institute of Neurology, Queen Square in London, United Kingdom.