Medical conferences in India: Are they more about the alcohol than knowledge sharing?

The DGHS advisory urges doctors across the country to refrain from consuming alcohol during medical conferences, workshops, and other events.

BySumit Jha

Published May 13, 2023 | 8:00 AMUpdated May 13, 2023 | 10:09 AM

Doctors and scientists share their experiences of medical conferences where alcohol consumption is common. (Creative Commons)

An advisory was recently issued by the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) — the highest technical advisory body for health in India — to all medical associations. The advisory urged doctors across the country to refrain from consuming alcohol during medical conferences, workshops, and other events.

Medical conferences in India are an important part of the healthcare industry, providing medical professionals with opportunities to share knowledge, learn about the latest medical advances, and network with peers.

These conferences cover a wide range of medical specialties and topics, and are often attended by doctors, nurses, researchers, academics, and other healthcare professionals.

DGHS’s letter to the medical fraternity

DGHS Dr Atul Goel, in his letter to all medical associations across India, also highlighted the increase in non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

The letter cited statistics from the WHO-NCD India profile, 2018, indicating that NCDs are estimated to account for 63 percent of all deaths in the country. The leading cause of overall mortality is cardiovascular diseases, followed by chronic respiratory diseases, cancer, diabetes, and others.

The one-page letter issued by the DGHS stated that the goal of the advisory was to reduce the burden of NCDs and associated risk factors in the country.

It remains to be seen what impact the advisory from the DGHS will have on the medical community, but some doctors, clinicians, and scientists are already sharing their experiences of medical conferences, where alcohol consumption is common.

Also Read: Inside the murky world of doctors, hospitals, and pharma freebies

‘Over 90% of conferences have alcohol’

Neurologist at Apollo Hospital in Hyderabad, Dr Sudhir Kumar, said that he has attended hundreds of medical conferences since 2001. “Some of them are sponsored and some are not. However, one common theme is serving alcohol… in more than 90 percent of these academic conferences,” he said.

“I know at least one incident where a senior doctor died, possibly triggered by heavy alcohol consumption. I also recall several incidents where doctors were heavily drunk and had to be escorted to their rooms by their colleagues or hotel staff,” he said.

Painting us a picture, he said that if you happen to see a table where alcohol is being served at one of these conferences, it resembles a busy vegetable market or a shop with a discount sale, with doctors pushing one another to get their quota of booze — free in most cases, as it’s all taken care of by sponsors or organisers.

Also Read: Freebies by pharmaceutical companies are rampant

Global conferences quite different

But the question now arises — Is this just in India or globally too?

Hepatologist and Clinician-Scientist Dr Cyriac Abby Philips tweeted, in reply to the DGHS’s letter, that he has attended medical meetings and society conferences globally, especially in the US and Europe — and the scene is very different there.

“I have never seen any of the influential clinical societies serve alcohol as part of their educational meetings. I have seen it being served only during exclusive award ceremonies,” said Dr Philips in a tweet.

He added that in India, many doctors attend large-scale meetings just for the food and alcoholic drinks. He added, “Some for the freebies at the pharmaceutical stalls — have seen doctors stuff freebies into large gunny bags and stand in line to do that instead of attending educational sessions inside — and some for the free time and sponsored trip away from their routine hospital work.”

Also Read: Doctors worried as more youth die of alcohol-related issues

‘Little clinical networking’

Dr Philips also shared, in his tweet, that Indian medical conferences have very little clinical networking, very little collaboration studies developing from them and, most of the time, they are done to butter up the egos of senior doctors with very little stage time given to upcoming young clinical scientists.

“Most young clinicians and students attend the programme because their seniors or teachers are attending it and they need to do that to stay visible and be part of the ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’ network and not medical research collaborations networking,” tweeted Dr Philips.

“This is why the Indian gastroenterology and hepatology medical communities have very little to offer to the world in the context of breakthrough medical studies, novel collaborative consensus guidelines, and multi-centre expert recommendations, apart from the society-based guidelines, even though one of the largest numbers of diverse patient communities in gastroenterology and hepatology is in India,” he added in his tweet.

He said that the removal of alcohol from medical educational meetings is a great first step. “Medical doctors must get drunk on new information and excitement for novel clinical studies and not alcohol,” he said.

Alcohol for drug recommendation?

Pharmaceutical companies have a significant influence on medical conferences in India, as they often provide funding and support for these events. This funding can be used to cover conference expenses, including venue rental, travel and accommodation for speakers, and even catering and entertainment.

In exchange for their support, pharmaceutical companies may expect to have a presence at the conference, such as an exhibition booth or sponsored session.

A cardiologist, speaking to South First on condition of anonymity, said that the cost of attendance of doctors at these conferences is often covered by pharmaceutical agents. As a result, doctors are provided with various amenities, including unlimited access to alcohol.

“These conferences are typically held at five-star hotels or resorts, which can be expensive. Pharmaceutical companies pay for doctors’ accommodation, food, and alcohol,” said the cardiologist. He added that doctors who are given these perks are unlikely to turn down the free alcohol, given the demands of their work.

He further explained that pharmaceutical companies sponsoring these events are essentially marketing their products.

“The hope is that when patients visit these doctors in the future, they will recommend the sponsored company’s medications,” he said.