Conference Success: How to Get the Most Out of Attending a Major Oncology Meeting

Oncology Fellows, September 2012, Volume 4, Issue 3

Imagine navigating through a crowd of 25,000 oncology professionals in the largest conference center in the United States. In this environment, it is easy for even the most seasoned oncologist to feel overwhelmed.

Why do we attend medical conferences?

Worth the price?

Imagine navigating through a crowd of 25,000 oncology professionals in the largest conference center in the United States. In this environment, it is easy for even the most seasoned oncologist to feel overwhelmed. Plenary sessions, exhibit halls, late-breaking abstracts, and poster discussions…where to begin? For first-time attendees of a large medical conference, excitement and enthusiasm can quickly fade to exhaustion and attention deficit when confronted with such a staggering number of choices. A significant commitment of time, energy, and money is required to attend a large oncology conference. Furthermore, we are becoming aware of the potentially negative environmental impact of such meetings. Therefore, it is essential to create a plan to ensure that the medical conference you attend is a worthwhile experience, rather than a waste of resources.Education and social interaction are often cited as the primary reasons to attend a major medical conference. From large sessions devoted to the latest ground-breaking advances to smaller lectures specifically designed to review the current standard of care, conferences aim to educate attendees. In addition, these meetings provide opportunities to contribute to the dissemination of information by presenting your own original work to a group of peers who provide immediate feedback. Conferences that bring together thousands of oncology professionals create the ideal environment for reconnecting with former colleagues and networking with fellows from other training programs, future collaborators, and competitors. For an oncology fellow who will soon join the ranks of practicing oncologists, this is also the place to meet future employers.Some have begun to question whether the educational and social opportunities provided by such meetings justify the expense. Critics raise concern over the environmental impact of thousands of tons of carbon emissions from air travel to meetings.1 Professional time and the level of expertise of an oncologist are also limited resources and may be better spent outside of an airport. While meeting abstracts may be peer-reviewed, the process is not as rigorous as for full-length publication. Furthermore, 35% of abstracts that describe the results of randomized clinical trials are never published in full.2 Thus, the potential for harm exists due to incomplete information. Finally, while disclosure of conflicts of interest for speakers is now mandated, some question the objectiveness of a scientific program organized by leaders in a field for whom such conflicts exist.3

Strategies to get the most out of a major oncology meeting

Alternatives to large medical conferences include digital meetings with online webinars, educational podcasts, and digital review of poster presentations. Given the vast array of social networking tools, some question whether in-person communication remains necessary. However, until the sponsors and funders of major oncology conferences decide otherwise, these meetings will likely continue in a recognizable format for the foreseeable future. Therefore, it is important to develop a strategy to ensure that you get the most for your time, energy, and money when attending large oncology meetings.

  1. Be organized: Create a plan to avoid missing important deadlines or events. As an oncology fellow, meet with your clinical or research mentor to discuss what conferences are best suited to your interests. This is the perfect time in your training to attend a variety of meetings to get a sense of how they differ with respect to target population, purpose of the meeting, and general atmosphere. For example, mega-meetings such as the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) or American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) provide venues for groundbreaking clinical or translational research across the spectrum of oncology, while meetings like the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium are disease-specific. National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) conferences discuss updates to clinical guidelines developed by this organization, and meetings for patient advocacy organizations may focus on survivorship issues, ways to improve screening, or increasing clinical trial participation for specific diseases. Once you have decided what to attend, create a calendar of important dates, including abstract submission and registration deadlines. Prior to arriving at the conference, spend time reviewing the schedule of events and speakers. Check on the meeting website close to the conference date for latebreaking abstracts or newly added sessions that you may want to attend. Again, talk to your mentor about events he or she thinks will be particularly valuable. Prioritize sessions that you want to attend while you are at the conference, such as plenary sessions or controversial topics where the speakers will field questions from the audience. Most meetings record sessions and make them available online for viewing after the meeting; therefore, educational talks can be watched at home or at work where they may be more high-yield because of less distraction. Take advantage of online planning tools provided by the sponsoring organization to customize your conference itinerary. If possible, try to stay close to the convention center because this will reduce commuting time and allow you to go back to your hotel room during the day for a break.
  2. Participate: Get involved by seeking out opportunities to meet new people. Scan the conference schedule for the names of speakers or chairs of individual sessions in your area of interest whom you may want to meet. Do not be afraid to introduce yourself after sessions or in the hallway or to ask your mentor to provide the introduction at a poster session. Many established researchers or clinicians welcome the opportunity to meet fellows. Some conferences have prominent figures lead smaller, “meeting highlights” sessions specifically for fellows. These venues provide excellent opportunities to meet such people one-on-one to ask for their thoughts on controversies in the field or career advice. Review abstracts before the meeting and plan to attend poster sessions where you can speak with the authors and develop your own project ideas. Better yet, submit your own abstract—you may be selected for an oral presentation or a poster, both of which are great learning experiences. Visit the exhibit hall where physician recruiters provide information about jobs and different practice environments. Patient advocacy organizations will often have booths featuring educational resources for both physicians and patients. Pharmaceutical companies and device manufacturers will also have exhibits of their latest products. Reconnect with former colleagues by contacting them before the meeting and schedule plans to meet up.
  3. Save money: Travel awards and sharing expenses can result in substantial savings. If submitting an abstract, review the sponsoring organizations’ website for travel or merit awards offered to fellows to help defer costs. Register and book your flight early, as fares typically increase closer to the date of the meeting. Airport shuttles to hotels are often cheaper than cabs and have less environmental impact. Share a hotel room with co-fellows or former colleagues. Check the prices of nearby hotels not affiliated with the conference as they may be less expensive. Or consider a condo rental instead of a hotel; these usually accommodate more people and include a kitchen, which can substantially reduce costs in many areas.

Despite concerns that major oncology conferences may become obsolete in the digital age, they present an excellent opportunity for fellows to become engaged in the field by contributing their own work, meeting colleagues, and learning from established researchers and clinicians. Organization prior to the meeting can ensure that the conference is both an educational and social success.


  1. Green M. Are international medical conferences an outdated luxury the planet can’t afford? yes. BMJ. 2008;336(7659):1466.
  2. Scherer RW, Langenberg P, von Elm E. Full publication of results initially presented in abstracts. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007;(2):MR000005.
  3. Ioannidis JP. Are medical conferences useful? and for whom? JAMA. 2012;307(12):1257-1258.