The Challenge of EMS Conferences

I attended EMS World Expo last week in Las Vegas and had a good time.  I had the opportunity to reconnect with several of my good friends in the Las Vegas emergency medicine world.  I got to see a bunch of people who I only see at these conferences and meet several people who I previously only knew through the Internet. And I ate like a king.  (If you know me away from the blog, you can easily find my Yelp reviews with some incredible food suggestions for Sin City.)  And being as it was Vegas, well, I had fun in Vegas.

But here’s the sad, but honest truth.  I learned very little.  I did come away with one huge new thing — apparently, there’s now an EZ-IO placement in the distal femur for pediatric patients.  But the rest of the presentations were pretty “ok.”  There’s not a lot of new information out there.  And sadly, in a presentation on recent research, a renowned EMS scholar presented information on fluid resuscitation in sepsis that is not only not current, but may even be contraindicated by more recent research.  Sadly, some of the best airway education was occurring in the exhibit hall practicing the SALAD technique with disciples of anesthesiologist and EMS airway physician Dr. Jim DuCanto.

I wasn’t going to gripe about this until seeing my friend and EMS airway ninja post some excellent education online regarding surgical airways and the need to rapidly move to a surgical airway. I asked myself why a presentation like this didn’t occur at a major EMS conference.  I came up with three reasons.

  1. Audience.  Truth be told, not everyone in EMS wants to learn the most current medicine.  There’s a large, loud contingent of folks who want to learn the bare minimum to maintain certification and/or pass the test. “Meets minimum standards” is a mantra in EMS.  And as we’ve all heard me gripe before, you can never go wrong in overestimating the number of people in EMS who are in it for the hero status as opposed to the medical professional status.  See also: EMS t-shirt sales.
  2. EMS celebrities. Truth be told as well, there are certain speakers on the EMS conference circuit who are known quantities.  They’re entertainers first and educators last.  They fill the seats and are like flypaper attracting the “meets minimum standards” crowd.  These people can speak on any topic, present dated or questionable information, and have limited expertise on the topic.  But because they’re funny and/or appeal to the lowest common denominator, EMS conferences continue to invite them as speakers.  Why?  Because they put butts in the seats.
  3. Timing. Most of these conferences put out calls for presentations almost a year before the conference commences. As such, the most current research and practice doesn’t always make it in time.

If you wonder why I spend so much time on EMS social media and blogs, I will close things out with a quote from Dr. Joe Lex, the intellectual godfather of #FOAM.

If you want to know how we practiced medicine 5 years ago, read a textbook.
If you want to know how we practiced medicine 2 years ago, read a journal.
If you want to know how we practice medicine now, go to a (good) conference.
If you want to know how we will practice medicine in the future, listen in the hallways and use FOAM.

And if you don’t know #FOAM, it’s likely you’re already a step behind the EMS education curve.



  2. Bryan Bledsoe says:

    Generally, non-medical conference management types tend to pick the topics. They ask you to submit several but then they choose the ones that will bring the most people in. Anything technical, related to helicopters, or things similar are wanted because they bring people in. Alternatively, you can do a PowerPoint presentation containing gore and trauma and the room will be packed. This is one of the main reasons I’ve cut way back on speaking at EMS conferences.

    • True. Also many ems people can’t really afford to go traveling and paying for conferences. That’s why I didn’t go to this one.

  3. I’m really glad that you wrote this. I also attended EMS Expo and with a few exceptions, I was disappointed in the level of challenge to the classes offered. I did enjoy the research ones as well as ultrasound. Thanks!

  4. This states why I don’t hardly go to conferences.

  5. Early in my career, I attended many of the big name, regional and local conferences, for several years and then I realized that it was the same “engaging speakers” at each conference, so I stopped attending. About 3 years ago, I returned to EMS education (after a 10 year period of EMS administration) and guess what I found, the same speakers at the conferences.
    I think some of the problem lies with those of us who have the experience and ability to educate, but the desire not to entertain (though we shouldn’t be boring either). Also, the topics that drive my interest, as you said are not gory or fun, so may not appeal to masses.
    Finally, as you state, we should consider surgical airways more often. I did my first surgical airway about 15 years ago and have often said since, that I should have done more during my field EMS career.

  6. Sadly, this is accurate. When a very expensive multi-day conference doesn’t have new info, it’s a waste of my money, vacation time, and energy.
    No thanks. I’ll stick with the state conferences and the 2 day conferences.

  7. I enjoy presentations that support medics who use critical analysis instead of “cookbook” protocol, those that challenge traditional dogma and those presenting data driven patient care. The Texas EMS conference has lost some of the luster from the past, but the content has improved. Your legal lectures and Jeff Jarvis’s data presentations are always excellent. And Jeff’s DSI has changed the way intibation is performed in our department. The Gathering of Eagles is another great opportunity. It’s filled with information from physicians who work in the field.

  8. I follow your path. As newly retired, I attend to see what is new in the exhibit hall and horizon issues. I enjoy the more technical and research based. For that NAEMSP (January San Diego) is a great one and welcomes all levels. Both Expo and EMS Today are large multi-track programs that attract over 4,000 attendees. Costs of these programs for those of us who are paying full freight are approaching $2,000 with travel and registration. In my own system we were very lucky to have national quality presentations in our CME – this is not true in most places – but I still go out to hear what is new. Try to take one in if not all.
    My Top List:
    National Association of EMS Physicians – this year San Diego, CA
    Jan 11-13 2018
    Gathering of Eagles – Dallas, TX
    March 2-3 2018
    EMS Today Charlotte, NC
    February 21-23
    EMS World (Don’t have the dates)

    In a world that we have accepted bland education – limited audience engagement – you need to spice things up – for networking sake if nothing else – – And the Food 🙂

  9. JR Pickett says:

    We get what we expect. If the product caters to the “minimum standards” medic, then that’s what they will draw. If you teach to the lowest common denominator, then everyone becomes the lowest common denominator.

  10. Im going to let the conference subject matter discussion alone, but just wanted to say thanks for introducing me to the SALAD video. Some very useful ideas…I would recommend it to all who intubate.
    Have they looke at how to adapt it to being concurrent with chest compressions? I would imagine the pumping action and need for somewhat increased speed may require differences in approach.