Kevin O'Brien: Thoughts on the future orthodontic conference
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Kevin O'Brien: Thoughts on the future orthodontic conference

A couple of weeks ago, I gave my final conference presentation. This was at a tremendous small meeting in Portmeirion in Wales. I decided to make this my last presentation because I want to stop speaking while I am coherent! Having taken this step, I have reflected on the future orthodontic conference.


As the first step to this post, I have gone back to an editorial I wrote for the Journal of Orthodontics in 2002. At this time, I was at a very cynical point in my career. These were my thoughts at that time on the value of a conference.

“I think that we should all consider what we get out of our attendance at a meeting, particularly a large international meeting and its required travelling time. When we consider the information available from the presentations, a review of past conferences reveals that it is frequently an expert opinion based on a few case reports and early publication of study results (which may change before publication in refereed journals). Neither of these formats is hard science. While some may argue that this is useful. We must consider whether we are being misled by the content of most conferences, bearing in mind the weak level of evidence being presented.

I also reviewed a blog post on the future of conferences after the COVID pandemic. that I wrote two years ago, and I concluded:

“I cannot help thinking that the traditional conference has had its day. Indeed, we may be rapidly moving to the exchange of information using lectures on freely accessible platforms. We will also not be travelling long distances to meetings at a cost to ourselves and our environment. Paradoxically, these are fascinating and exciting developments that may change orthodontics”.

Has my viewpoint changed?

As the pandemic appears to be receding (we hope), it is perhaps time for me to revisit these thoughts. I have also become less cynical in my retirement (some of you may not agree?).

Firstly, I would like to start by looking back. I have attended many conferences all over the World. As a result, I have experienced several formats. These meetings have varied from small local gatherings where speakers simply shared clinical tips. Importantly, they tend to not make extreme claims about the treatment. At the other end of the spectrum are the large national and international meetings. At these events, well-known speakers address large audiences with multiple parallel sessions. But what is the content?

Conference content

In my experience, the content varied from excellent academic/research discussions, for example, Bill Proffit, Lylse Johnston and Kate Vig. Well-presented and critical case reports (TADS, orthognathic surgery) to other speakers who make wild claims about the treatment they are promoting (Invisalign, vibrations, Carriere appliance). These KOLs somehow get invited onto the main programme to promote the products they are paid to sell.

I have enjoyed all these forms of presentation. However, I have not fallen for the sales pitch, and it concerns me that some people have. More of this later.

Social programme

The other major component of the conference is the social programmes. These are integral to many meetings and significant attractions for many people. For example, I have attended sophisticated receptions in fantastic Italian villas to watching captive killer whales diving into small pools in a USA theme park. These forms of entertainment are popular and integral to many delegates. In fact, I wonder if they are the main reason for attending for some?

conference content

Trade exhibition

Finally, there is the trade exhibition where our sales colleagues promote their appliances/treatments. It is also the haunt of some KOLs who present to small audiences on trade stands. We know that the role of the exhibition is to sell, and we should approach it this way. Many colleagues attend the exhibition to review new developments and techniques. It is a core component of the large conferences and raises a lot of funds that support the meeting.

Blurring lines?

While these components of the conference are clear. We need to consider what happens when the lines blur. This results in the conference moving away from an educational event to a social and trade fair event. I cannot help feeling that this trend has increased over the years. There is a clear danger of the conference becoming nothing more than a “show” and party. There is nothing wrong with this if we realise that the meeting should not be our only source of education.

The remote conference

This then brings me to the advantages of the remote conference. There were significant developments in using meeting platforms during the pandemic. I saw many great presentations that were organised on an ad hoc basis or as a remote conference. It was great to view these in the comfort and convenience of my own home. I also enjoyed rewinding and reviewing the presentations to go over important points. Furthermore, I felt perfectly happy recording my presentations before the meeting. This format indeed reduced the pressure, and I was not jet lagged!

Other advantages are that it reduces the time away from work for both speakers and delegates. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it enables delegates from all over the World to access the presentations without the cost and hassle of travelling. Thus making the conference content more accessible.

These are the considerable advantages of remote presentations. As a result, I cannot help feeling that this format should continue in the future orthodontic conference.

The post-COVID conference?
So, what should my ideal new conference look like?

Firstly, all significant meetings should be hybrid with in-person and remote lectures.

This satisfies those who want to attend a meeting, see the exhibition, enjoy the social programme and visit another part of the World. However, if all the lectures are online, this suits those who do not want to attend the meeting or simply attend the lectures. It also enables access to those who cannot participate for cost, environmental, convenience or general hassle reasons.  The conferences could also make this content “free to air” for a period after the meeting.  This enables knowledge to be shared at no cost, which is something that I strongly support.

Secondly, it would be great if the future orthodontic conference committees could move us away from the “show and tell” approach toward more scientific content.

Finally, they should not support the industry-supported, flash, over-rehearsed KOL speakers who wander around the stages peddling their wares without or only grudgingly declaring a conflict. Some of these people have no place in a clinical scientific meeting.

Final comments.

The AAO, BOS and ASO have already held hybrid meetings at their recent conferences. Other organisations may have also done this. It would be great if all major conferences followed their lead. However, the real challenge is improving the scientific content and stopping the dilution of science. It is a great time to make these changes for the future orthodontic conference.