Are Medical Meetings Environmentally Unfriendly?

FRIDAY June 27, 2008 -- Anyone who has arrived at Chicago O'Hare, Orlando or Dallas airports during one of the dozens of huge medical meetings held every year will no doubt encounter tens of thousands of specialists from all over world thronging the hallways, the Starbucks, the luggage claim area.

Of course, the attendees use jet fuel to get to the meeting and gas to get from the airport to the hotel where, once they're checked in, they'll have the option or reusing or not reusing their towels.

But an expert writing in the June 28 issue of the British Medical Journal argues that medical meetings should be a thing of the past.

The author, Dr. Malcolm Green, a professor emeritus of respiratory medicine at Imperial College London, confesses to having attended such meetings himself throughout an illustrious career going back 30 years.

"This is not a matter of whether, but when," Green said. "The adaptations to climate change over the next few decades will be massive. This will be an inevitable part of that change. Canute was unable to hold back the tide, and we will be unable to hold back the consequences of climate change. The current 'crisis' of oil prices is here to stay and will intensify."

Green makes the point that the relatively cozy meeting of the American Thoracic Society draws more than 15,000 respiratory doctors and scientists each year, some 3,500 of whom are from Europe. The 2006 conference in San Diego, by one estimate, resulted in 100 million person air miles and produced a carbon burden of 10,800 tons.

The American Cardiac Society meeting, with about 45,000 attendees, represents 300 million person air miles. Add to that the American Heart Association last year, which had almost 26,000 attendees, and the American Society of Clinical Oncology's meeting, which drew crowds of 34,000 or more.

Green estimates that the overall impact of travel to and from conferences is at least 6 billion person air miles a year, or 600,000 tons of carbon, equivalent to the sustainable carbon emissions for 500,000 people in India. And this doesn't include the impact from the use of hotels, conference centers and more.

So, Green argues, virtual networks and virtual meetings should be the order of the day.

"Teenagers and others get to know each other and conduct all manner of relationships over the Internet," Green said. "It is just as possible for researchers and doctors to establish professional relationships and exchange information, ideas and discussions. It will require learning new ways of working, indeed, but this should not be unattainable."

And curbing air travel has another advantage not mentioned by Green.

"Close contact is a factor in the spread of respiratory diseases," said Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "[There was] a reduction and delay of the spread of influenza in 2002 due to the curb on flying and the reduction in air travel after 9/11."

However, another doctor countered in the same issue of the journal that giving up all medical conferences will have little effect on global warming, since the majority of international travel is recreational in nature.

James Owen Drife, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology from Leeds General Infirmary in England, wrote that conferences are essential for stimulating global initiatives in the medical community. Cutting back on conferences that duplicate each other is a reasonable option, he acknowledged.

However, "hiding behind our computer screens and pretending that this is helping the planet" isn't the answer, Drife added.

Adding to that point was yet another American expert. "I absolutely agree that we all should do what we can to reduce our carbon footprint, but does somebody really think if physicians stopped traveling to international conferences that all planes would be grounded?" said Dr. Kirby Donnelly, department head of environmental and occupational health at Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Rural Public Health.

"There are a lot of things we can do other than stop flying," he added. "We could do a lot more with conferences and video conferences. But, still, the face-to-face contact is extremely important and the opportunity to make connections."

More information

Calculate your own carbon footprint at carbonfootprint.com.

Posted: June 2008


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