Spotlight on ECTRIMS - A junior doctor perspective.

I wrote this satirical piece following my experiences of ECTRIMS last year - hope you enjoy!

In early October of this year, I was fortunate enough to attend the 29th Congress of the European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ECTRIMS) and the 18th Annual Conference of Rehabilitation in MS (RIMS) in Copenhagen, Denmark. During my final year at medical school, I undertook a research project at the Institute of Neurology and an abstract I had submitted to ECTRIMS was accepted for a poster presentation.

ECTRIMS was to be my first experience of an international scientific conference. I was excited about participating in this prestigious event but also nervous at the prospect of being asked difficult questions by stern-looking professors with bow-ties during my designated ‘Poster Session’. 

ECTRIMS was apparent from the moment I set foot on the airplane at London Gatwick. I began to  spot other people carrying poster tubes; looking anxious but seemingly relieved that they had been allowed to carry the fruits of their endeavour on-board despite the budget airlines strict rules on cabin baggage dimensions. The conference was to be held in the Bella Center located 6 kilometres south of Copenhagen’s city centre. As I entered the arrivals area of the airport I realised I must have made a mistake; was the conference being held at the airport itself? Hundreds of attractive-looking people were holding up placards from pharmaceutical companies ready to welcome in delegates to ECTRIMS 2013. Scuffles erupted as one drug company attempted to reach the front barrier in place of another. As I scanned the various placards for my own name, it dawned on me that the house-officer from Hammersmith Hospital was not to be chauffeur-driven to the conference; he would have to take the Metro.   

As I entered the Bella Center, I was struck by the scale of the conference and the sheer number of delegates. There was a palpable air of excitement as colleagues reunited and caught-up on recent news. I had arranged to meet my supervisor at one of the drug company’s ‘Hospitality Suites’. I could see his look of disdain as I approached ten-minutes late; one hand filled with free pens, the other clutching a  pharma ice-cream, my neck seemingly strained by a garland of USB sticks and a delegate rucksack balanced on my forehead. After a brief discourse, we arranged to meet the following day after the Plenary Session which would include a ‘Welcome to Copenhagen’ speech given by Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark and a ‘Cultural Feature’. Neither of these features disappointed. Queen Margarethe II, a patron of the Danish MS Society gave an inspirational speech emphasising the economic and social burden of multiple sclerosis (MS). This was followed by a ‘Cultural Feature’; a deafening barrage of drums followed by the tingle of glockenspiels.

As the conference progressed, I enjoyed attending various lectures, teaching sessions and Satellite Symposia which provided a broad overview of the latest developments in MS research. Naturally, some sessions were better than others, but overall and in my humble opinion I felt the standard was exceptionally high. As time went on, the nervous anticipation for my own poster session grew, made worse by the fact my poster had been short-listed for a prize and hence stood below an enormous red rosette with the words ‘top poster score’ inscribed within it. I began to imagine worst-case scenarios. What if my inability to answer a question was reported to my seniors? Worse still, could an interested bystander one day be on an interview-panel cross-examining me for a specialty post? As it turned out, the time flew by and I enjoyed answering the questions posed to me. I was flattered that people took an interest in my hard work and I was given ideas for further studies.

Prior to attending ECTRIMS, I was informed that as a shortlisted candidate for a poster prize, I could be phoned on the penultimate evening of the conference to be told I had won one of five awards. This would mean giving a short presentation on the final day of the conference and receiving a stipend for my hard endeavour. I was sure to keep my phone on the ‘loud’ setting as I pondered how I would spend my winnings. Perhaps I would put it towards the purchase of an emblematic piece of Danish furniture. Better still, a year’s supply of Danish Butter Cookies. The evening progressed, and I began to convince myself that there must be a fault in my mobile phone but the other calls I was receiving disputed this theory. At the stroke of midnight, clarity began to emerge and it became obvious I had most likely been un-successful this year.

Since returning to London, I have had time to reflect on what I learnt at ECTRIMS. Firstly, I was amazed by the sheer number of people who have an interest in the field of MS. Whilst this can be overwhelming, there was clear evidence of vibrant and effective collaborations. Secondly, there seems to be a lot of excitement amongst clinicians and researchers alike at the emergence of a number of new and effective Disease-Modifying Therapies for treating relapsing-remitting MS. Finally, I was inspired by how much emphasis was placed on research in progressive MS, a field where effective therapies have traditionally remained elusive. 

I look forward to attending the 30th ECTRIMS Congress next year in Boston; and who knows… maybe this time my telephone will ring!