A reflection on SMACC (Social Media and Critical Care Conference) in Sydney!

The past 3 days has been a whirlwind experience in Sydney, Australia where I attended the Social Media and Critical Care Conference (@smacc2013).


I joined a group of several of my colleagues at Auckland HEMS to participate in the inaugural conference. It combined two seemingly unrelated things – social media & critical care. Making it probably the among the first (if not the first) medical conference to have social media as a key theme. Over the past few years, physicians in critical care, emergency medicine and prehospital medicine have become leaders in social media and using the internet as a learning tool. The creators of the conference started the innovative website Lifeinthefastlane which is a blog read by thousands of acute care physicians around the world. They decided to extend their scope and create a conference which in my opinion was a huge success! This conference was a natural extension of the relatively new concept that highlights “medical education for anyone anytime, anywhere” – this concept is known as FOAM or “free access open meducation” (#FOAMed on twitter). I won’t describe it fully here as others have already done so. But it’s the way in which we use social media and the internet to share, disseminate and collaborate within medical education.

As a reflection on the conference I’d like to share a couple highlights and concepts that emerged. What was unique about the conference was the use of Twitter. There was heavy emphasis on live tweeting during each session with a designated twitter coordinator who would pose questions to the speakers directly from those asked on Twitter. There was constant discussion on Twitter with both conference attendees and even those clinicians half-way around the world. Let me provide a brilliant demonstration of this in action. In one session about coagulation in trauma, the session facilitator (Dr. Minh Le Cong from the blog PHARM) tweeted asking for comments from those in the twittersphere. Within minutes there were comments coming in from Dr. Karim Brohi, a trauma surgeon in London, England who is a world expert in coagulation in trauma. A discussion among the speaker and the audience resulted based on his comments. Never before had I seen such interaction at a global level occur during a conference. The power in capturing ideas and facilitiating live discussion among both those attending the conference and leading experts sitting in a room across the world is amazing!

When I would look around the room in each session, there was a barrage of tweeting with many sending out comments made by conference speakers as they happened. This is incredibly powerful. It allowed for an immediate online commentary for those not attending the conference. But it also allowed those of us in other sessions to hear some highlights and really get an idea of what was happening especially if there were controversial topics being discussed.

Every talk was videorecorded and posted online for free viewing by anyone in the world. This represents a huge step in promoting free open access medial education (FOAM). Why we restrict education to those who can afford or arrange travel to these conferences is mindboggling. Our business is to improve patient care and if we can collaborate and share ideas that emerge from great meetings like this then our patients will definitely benefit.

Imagine a speaker says something quite controversial. Previously it might never really be discussed again. Or perhaps it might be misrepresented several weeks or months later in a report. At this conference, speaker comments could be disseminated rapidly with the opportunity for rapid responses and discussion.

Unlike many academic conferences, speakers were introduced based on their blog (and not their publication count or number of academic achievements). While the merits of publications should not be diminished, it highlighted that an online presence where your ideas are shared, exposed and subject to review from people around the world is a new way to gain status within the medical world.

Finally, the conference started to address how FOAM, social media and asynchronous learning can be incorporated within medicine. There were enthusiastic talks that demonstrated the power of online education but also some excellent perspectives that online learning is not a learning panacea. These sessions were humbling since we must remember that despite all this technology, we still treat people. Our job requires human interaction and without reflection we can begin to forget this. Those on blogs and twitter drive the curriculum because topics are interesting, but sometimes the less sexy topics deserve discussion. There’s no curriculum to guide us online and this may not always benefit learners.

As long as we can appreciate these limitations we can maximize the potential of a asynchronous learning using an online platform. Never before can we collaborate, share, discuss and even criticize. It’s an exciting time for medical education and SMACC did a great job making it a reality!