John P. A. Ioannidis, MD, DSc , Professor of Medicine, who was profiled in the Atlantic as a Brave Thinker in the November 2010 article "Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science- Brave Thinkers wrote a brilliant piece "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False".
He came up with another provocative essay published in the JAMA in the March 28, 2012 issue titled" Are Medical Conferences Useful? And for Whom?
The full article is available only for JAMA subscriber which is strange given its wide recognition and usefulness to general public. His Critique of the Medical conferences Travel- environmental burden of more than 10,000 tons of carbon per each mid-sized international conference based on a article published in BMJ - Are international medical conferences an outdated luxury the planet can't afford? Yes
No evidence of utility and poor value- he notes that they serve a specific system of questionable values that may be harmful. Most of the research presented at these conferences has no meaningful value and there is no evidence it helps to further medical research.
Abstracts- Most of these submissions are to facilitate CV building and further professional careers than to advance clinical research in any meaningful way. He also notes that they suffer from poor peer review process where selection is based on their affiliation and most of these are not published as full text articles but more concerning is their premature and inaccurate results.
Brand building system-This is so true where a select group of favored physician and scientists are elevated beyond their worthy contribution to become opinion leaders to advance the causes of their masters.
Leadership positions- "power is the great aphrodisiac" quoted Kissinger, and who does not like positions of power and prestige that comes with these conferences.
How to improve medical conferences?
Online late breaker research portal- this is a great idea but given the stakes involved by the drug, device and specialty societies in generating media buzz with their own submissions, this may not come to fruition anytime soon.
Remote conferences-this is possibly the single greatest threat to massive meetings in years to come where most physicians can gain, extend their knowledge. The Massive open online course (MOOC) movement is a great example of what lies in the future, but it can gain traction only if they can offer continuing education credits.
Stringent criteria for Conference organizers- It sounds ideal, but it runs against the basic principle of freedom of speech in restricting people or organizations not to conduct conferences. Basic economics suggest that successful organizations will continue to leverage their position for better financial gain and unless physicians stop attending them they will be a regular presence for years to come.
Re-purposed conferences - e.g. academic detailing. I am not sure who is interested in ordering fewer tests and interventions in the prevailing fee for service market.
There are quite a few areas where medical conferences still serve a purpose which Ioannidis has not addressed. Most of the physicians in regular clinical practice attend conferences to familiarize with medical knowledge and review the basics. As most of these are organized in exotic locations, they are used to get away from their daily life with family and friends and many indeed use them as vacation time. There are a lot of procedure based conferences where acquisition of new skills or new interventions can be learned.
Most of the state medical boards in USA require CME credits to maintain licensure and these conference's provide a bulk of them in a short period of time.