On continuing education

I used to attend a popular primary care conference each year. It was three full days of lectures covering a wide range of topics, featuring hundreds of health, educational and pharmaceutical vendors. The price was reasonable, and it was a great time to connect with friends.

The lectures were always interesting and relevant to my practice. I usually found myself on the edge of my seat hurriedly making notes, trying to take it all in.

By the start of the third day every year, I was exhausted and overwhelmed. And by the time I got home, I’d forget much of what was said. As if information went in one ear and out the other.

It took me a few years to become aware of the fact that I wasn’t learning and retaining what I ought to.

(Honestly, I believed something was wrong with me.)

When I actually thought about this conference – why it exists, how it impacts us and who benefits from it – I realized that it was an enormous opportunity for those in the pharmaceutical industry to promote their products to thousands of primary care providers. Pharma sponsorship was the reason the price to attend was so cheap.

As for the lectures, they were an efficient way for speakers to share information with thousands of people, but they weren’t the most effective way of teaching. Passive consumption of an enormous amount of new information rarely leads to lasting change.

Once I became critically aware of who benefited the most from this conference and how the conference impacted me, my colleagues and our clients, I was able to make the best decision for myself and stop going.

When I saw the bigger picture, I realized I wasn’t flawed because I couldn’t learn and remember everything I’d heard. It wasn’t just me.

No one can. 

As nurses we are expected to be informed, current and continuously learn. We’re expected to provide consistent, high quality, evidence-based care. We’re expected to avoid making mistakes. We’re expected to do a lot on our own. These expectations, coupled with continuing education that doesn’t benefit us, can fuel feelings of not knowing enough.

It’s impossible to learn, remember and apply everything we’re taught. Impossible to do our work on our own. Yet we continue to cling to unrealistic expectations that we should be able to know and do it all.

I think it’s possible to keep learning and provide the best possible care. But not when we’re expected to memorize everything we’re supposed to know, and when we’re taught in the least effective ways.

My experiences with continuing education over the years have made me realize many uncomfortable truths.

When we stop believing in continuing education, on the grounds that it’s not the same as learning, it’s time for us to talk.

People’s lives depend on it.