How to Cover a Medical Meeting

Following are lightly edited excerpts from a thread that appeared on the NASW-freelance Listserv. This is but one of the many threads that may be found on the list from time to time.

These messages were collected by NASW member Richard Robinson. He received reprint permission from the posters.

Subject: Covering medical meetings

Date: 26 Feb 00 10:51:55 PST From: Sue Wallace

I'll be covering a medical meeting in March and I told the editor that I've attended medical meetings before and I have -- just not as part of the media. I know I won't have any problems understanding the material being presented at the meeting, but I would appreciate any tips on what I should or should not do as a member of the media.

For example, do I have to dress as fancy as the doctors? How do I find the press area? I particularly don't want to look stupid since this editor will also be there and she is giving me a lot of work for a long time and I really like regular paychecks. Thanks in advance,

Sue Wallace

Date: Sat, 26 Feb 2000 13:39:28 -0700 From: Richard Robinson

Call the meeting organizer to ask about press room, any sessions that may be closed to the press, any planned press conferences, etc. Small meetings tend to have very little organization, but big ones are often highly organized in this respect. I usually dress as close to the crowd as I can stand; however, I rarely get close enough to not tell the difference. You've probably made reservations already, but if not, consider springing for a more expensive room closer to the meeting center, since schlepping back and forth to a distant hotel is a terrific waste of time.

The best way to get prepared is to study the meeting schedule and abstracts intensively before you get there. Plan what you want to cover, map out a detailed itinerary, including the room each session is in, when you are going to have lunch, who you'll need to track down for interviews, etc. Figure out how you will find doctors you want to find -- is there a message board, or a computerized system? (In any event, the best way is usually to pin them down right after their presentation.) Arrive at sessions as early as you can, to get a seat way up front. If you are recording sessions on your own, bring plenty of extra batteries, and test your recorder in an early session you don't care about.

Don't avoid your editor -- keep her informed about what you've seen, what you're planning to cover, etc. Your medical expertise will probably be valuable to her in her own coverage of the meeting.

Date: Sat, 26 Feb 2000 16:12:15 -0500 From: Norman Bauman

First rule: Get the abstracts and read them.

My first rule, and I think everybody's first rule, is: Get a copy of the abstract book, or the abstracts of the sessions you're supposed to cover, immediately. If the abstracts aren't out yet, call each doctor and ask him to fax the abstract to you. Try to interview the doctors before the meeting, if possible. Try to get a prepared text, or handouts, in advance.

Ideally, I would spend the week before the meeting writing the stories, then show up at the meeting with the stories basically done, sit through the presentations, enjoy the slides, and wait for some good extemporaneous lines and the questions at the end. In the real world, that seldom happens. I often sit there listening to technical lectures that I can't figure out, and I have to tape everything and go through it again very slowly, often with a medical dictionary and an anatomy book.

I can save a lot of time if I run up to the doctor immediately after the presentation with my tape recorder and say, "Dr. X, I'm writing this up for YZ News. You can summarize this better than I can. What's the most important point that a doctor should understand about this?" Basically I'm offering to let him tell me what he would like to see in a tabloid news story. Sometimes the guy is really articulate and will dictate 800 words of great copy and all I have to do is stick in a few "he said's." Sometimes the guy isn't articulate and I have to tediously figure it out from the tape.

If you can get 2 or 3 stories a day like that, you can wear dungarees.

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 09:25:08 +0900 From: (Sandra Katzman)

You can sometimes get a doctor to enter information directly:

I had my laptop at a medical meeting. A doctor stood nearby, answering my question between sessions. I typed, slowly, asking for repeated phrases. I gestured, and he willingly typed in the answer himself. A laptop can be convenient. I sat on the left side, near the wall; many laptops were plugged into wall sockets. The meeting organizers taped the connecting wires safely.

Wear comfortable shoes.

I was the only journalist. I think the other laptops belonged to medical personnel.

Date: Sat, 26 Feb 2000 14:43:12 +1100 From: Katherine Austin

. . .To add to Richard's and Norman's excellent advice, make sure you also have extra tapes -- many sessions run long, which can add up over a couple of days. I find that my tape recorder, which I otherwise love, doesn't tape well over previously recorded tapes, so I always use new ones.

Wear comfortable shoes; you may have to do a lot of walking. Be sure to take a warm enough coat, and keep it with you, even if the meeting is in a warm locale. (I remember freezing to death in an August meeting where the hotel air conditioner was up way too high. The 200 male urologists in the room just put their suit jackets on, but I was unprepared.) I don't think anyone expects a reporter to dress up -- I find I'm very comfortable talking with MDs in the working doctor's uniform of khaki trousers or khaki skirt -- and good quality shoes. At meetings of research scientists (as opposed to MDs), many people wear jeans.

You can ask the meeting organizers in the press room for help in arranging interviews with specific people, if needed. If it's a big meeting, spend some time in the press room and schmooze with the other reporters -- you can learn a lot just by listening to them and asking questions. (Many meetings provide lunch for the press, a good time to do this. Plus it's free food.)

It's also a good idea to remember your suitcase. (I know this to be true, having spent the evening before a big meeting buying duplicates of everything that was in my suitcase, which was sitting in the hall at home.)

Date: 26 Feb 00 18:51:48 PST From: Sue Wallace

Thanks to everyone for giving such great advice. I do, however, have a follow-up question.

Do I need a laptop?

Should I buy a laptop for this? I probably won't be going to many medical meetings since I'm a single parent and can't travel. I'm commuting to this meeting and don't have to file from the convention. On the other hand, lots of medical groups hold their meetings here so it is possible that I'll be attending more local conventions. Is it worth the cost of a laptop?

Date: Sat, 26 Feb 2000 22:52:03 -0500 From: Jeff Hecht

I seriously doubt it. A laptop is heavy; you don't want to carry it around any more than absolutely necessary. Laptops also are fragile (as I've learned the hard way); one slip and you're out a couple hundred bucks in repairs. They're made for corporate presentations, not for true journalistic portability. Add a 5-pound conference proceedings to the laptop, and you need a cart.

Michael Kenward recommended an HP Jornada (or something of the like) which is much lighter because it omits the bells and whistles we don't need. It is not sold in computer stores (at least around here), but you might find it in office supply superstores. The main drawback I saw in a few minutes of checking it in one store was that the keys were rather small for those of us with large hands and fingers.

I bought a used laptop and have used it twice for trips -- once effectively, the other time not. Neither time was it worth carrying around to sessions. I also travel little, so I decided to stay with paper notes and tapes for formal interviews -- and my handwriting is about as bad as it gets. I've commuted to cover many meetings, and that works fine for me.

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 22:46:06 +1100 From: Katherine Austin

What about taping?

What about renting one [a laptop] for the duration of meetings where you need to write in your hotel room at night?

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 22:46:06 +1100 From: "Michael Kenward"

The machine I mentioned is the Jornada 820 from Hewlett Packard.

Unless you are a fashion victim, with lots of jewellery in your luggage, now might be the time to buy. I saw somewhere that HP has dropped prices on this machine. It is now a few years old, and is therefore a stone-age implement. The machine is effectively just a typing device. (Remember the old Tandy portables?) It has a stripped down version of Word. (Be warned that not everyone can open its files with ease, although they can usually extract the text.) It comes with a built in modem (if you get the right version) and is fine for email on the road. The best bit for a PC user is the ease with which the two work together. Just plug them together and the software automatically synchronises address book, calendar, email in-box, and the files in a special folder.

Fashion notes from all over.

It has a 10-hour battery life, well that's the claim and it seems to run that long.

[NOTE: As of spring 2001, the Jornada 820 is no longer being made.]

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 10:18:26 -0700 From: Sibylle Hechtel

Does everyone tape these meetings? I've covered scientific meetings (FASEB meetings, winter brain conference, etc.) and just taken notes and read the abstracts, scientific papers ahead of time, and interviewed the speakers after. I will cover the Keystone millennium conference end of March and wonder if I should buy a tape recorder, If so, what kind?

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 12:33:41 -0600 From: Dan Ferber

Sibylle Hechtel wrote:

Does everyone tape these meetings?<

I generally don't. For me, it's faster to take good notes and use them directly. That matters when I'm writing 2-3 stories a day. I've tried tapes at several meetings. They captured a few good quotes that I had missed in my notes, but they really weren't worth the time spent fast-forwarding and rewinding to find them. I find it easier to get the speaker to sit down with me for a few minutes after the talk and answer any questions I have.

The exception came when I did some short Q and A stories about the biography and philosophy of individual researchers. Then, the tape recorder was essential for capturing long quotes from the interview.

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 13:00:55 -0600 From: "W. A. Thomasson" <>

Sue Wallace wrote;

For example, do I have to dress as fancy as the doctors?<


In my experience at medical meetings, you can always tell the media by the fact that they are the ones in suits. (Well, docs who are presenting papers wear suits, too. But ordinary attendees are quite casual, while business dress is the rule for press -- who, after all, are on the job.)

How do I find the press area?<

If you don't see a sign (sometimes there is one, sometimes there isn't), ask someone who looks official. . . .

Is it worth the cost of a laptop?<

This is a difficult question from several points of view. I have spent five years recommending a portable keyboard as an effective, inexpensive alternative -- I spent about $250 for mine. But it's been a while since I priced portable keyboards, while a quick glance at a catalog suggests that laptop prices have come down from $2000+ to about $1200. Since the laptop gives you the option of actually filing stories from the convention, it might be worth the difference -- if you decide to get anything at all.

And is it worth getting anything at all? It's a gamble either way. Having a laptop might get you assignments you would otherwise have to turn down. It will definitely make things easier -- particularly if you type faster than you write, as I do. But is it worth the money? I can't tell from here.

[NOTE: W.A. Thomasson later supplied this additional information about portable keyboards: They have a "40-character by 2-line display and enough non-volatile memory to hold about 60 pages of unformatted text. When you get back to your office, you plug it in to the keyboard port of your computer -- Mac or PC -- and download what you've typed into any word processing program. I used the AlphaSmart Pro -- AlphaSmart 3000 is the current model."

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 14:00:18 -0600 From: Lara Pullen

I don't tape. I take very careful notes from the slides and I familiarize myself with the abstracts and the subject matter ahead of time.

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 13:04:45 -0700 From: Richard Robinson

"W. A. Thomasson" wrote:

In my experience at medical meetings, you can always tell the media by the fact that they are the ones in suits.<

'I'd rather clean the oven than transcribe tapes.'

Really? Have you ever been to a neurology meeting? And I expect cardiologists are the same -- the bowtie crowd doesn't strike me as the type to dress down for the annual big show with their colleagues.

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 14:22:09 -0600 From: "W. A. Thomasson" <>

I certainly tape the sessions, but I consider my note-taking skills quite poor. If your note-taking is very, very good, you may not need to tape.

If you decide to get a tape recorder, my suggestion is to get one a bit larger than the pocket size you usually see. I find I get much better playback with one the same width but about two inches longer. (Of course, this may not apply if you intend to play the tape back on a different machine.)

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 15:33:57 -0500 From: "Thomas S. May"

A good alternative may be to buy a used laptop. You don't really need a fast Pentium III (or similar), with all the bells and whistles, if all you want to use it for is word processing and maybe email.

More fashion notes, this time by medical specialty.

Last year, I bought myself a refurbished IBM ThinkPad (with a 75 MHz Pentium, 850 MB HD, 16 MB RAM) for about $450 Canadian (~$300 US). I'm sure there are similar deals available everywhere, and something like this is perfectly sufficient for writing/editing stories on the move.

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 16:07:51 EST From:

Sue writes:

I know I won't have any problems understanding the material being presented at the meeting, but I would appreciate any tips on what I should or should not do as a member of the media.<

If you know you'll have no trouble with the material, you know more than a lot of the reporters covering meetings. You find the media room by following the signs that say "media room" or whatever. You wear whatever you think is businesslike and comfortable. You sit there and take notes, ask any questions that seem relevant to you, and write up for assignments. Good luck! You'll do fine.

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 16:16:49 -0500 From: Norman Bauman

One of the advantages of a laptop is that you can file from location. But most hotels have business centers that let you rent computers that you can also use to file stories.

If I'm filing a 600-word story, it's often easier to write it out by hand, and type it later on a standard keyboard at proper height.

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 16:18:16 EST From:

Sue asks:

Should I buy a laptop for this?<

Not unless they're paying you lots more than I get paid for meeting coverage ! If you're thinking of buying one anyway, for other purposes, then it will be useful for this. And if you're depending on one, there's the issue of proximity to an outlet or to long-lasting batteries. But I've found at scores of meetings that a "laptop" pad plus pen work just fine.

. . .

Sybille writes:

Does everyone tape these meetings?<

I don't. I read the abstracts and the papers, if they are available, listen closely, take all the notes I can, and ask all the questions I need to afterward. I find that forcing myself to get down a coherent account in my notes at the meeting itself is an excellent discipline and a great help in following the talk and finding the "story" in it. Also, I've learned the hard way that you can never absolutely depend on the quality of a tape recording, so you need good notes in any case, and anyway, I'd rather clean the oven than transcribe tapes.

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 18:22:23 -0500 From: "Alan Wachter"

[SNIP] . . . tried tapes at meetings... but they really weren't worth the time spent fast-forwarding and rewinding... easier to get the speaker to sit down and answer questions. Dan Ferber<

Should I hire a transcriptionist?

Right on, Dan. But I sometimes record Q&A sessions and save the tapes as back-up for quotes. The medical trades encourage controversy on emerging therapies and I often quote heated exchanges between panelists, writing from notes. Docs at two different meetings were certain I had misquoted them -- and I was afraid that I had -- until we heard the quoted words on tape. My quotes were in context and accurate. One doc's comment: "I cannot believe I let Dr. X goad me into that comment."

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 18:36:35 -0500 From: "Alan Wachter"

Bill Thomasson wrote: In my experience at medical meetings, you can always tell the media by the fact that they are the ones in suits.<

Richard Robinson says: Really? Have you ever been to a neurology meeting? And I expect cardiologists are the same -- the bowtie crowd doesn't strike me as the type to dress down...<

IMO, they vary by medical specialty. I once covered a psychiatry meeting and an ob/gyn seminar in the same week. The psychs wore three-piece navy, charcoal and chalk-stripe lawyer suits; the ob/gyns open shirts and slacks with little whales, or cats or dogs, on them. I've covered several cardiology meetings and like Richard, saw formal dress for the docs but not for the media.

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 21:49:29 -0600 From: "W. A. Thomasson" <>

Richard Robinson wrote:

Really? Have you ever been to a neurology meeting? And I expect cardiologists are the same -- the bowtie crowd doesn't strike me as the type to dress down for the annual big show with their colleagues.<

No, I've never been to either a neurology or a cardiology meeting. My rule was originally formulated at radiology meetings. Since then I've been to meetings of ophthalmologists, oncologists, and diabetes specialists. And while the "dress down" rule may have been less universal at these meetings, the different wasn't sufficiently conspicuous to force me to revise my rule of thumb.

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 20:29:47 -0700 From: Jennie Dusheck

Might it be amusing and also useful to compile a dress code by discipline -- for reference? At the extreme, geologists and cardiologists certainly dress differently from one another.

Date: Mon, 28 Feb 2000 04:49:07 -0600 From: "Maury Breecher"

I have an old Sony Portable Dictator. No, it's not a tyrant. It's a tape recorder that allows me to put an electron bip on the tape every time I hear something that I will later want to transcribe. It works in conjunction with a transcription machine. The whole system cost $1,200 way back in 1986 and has been the best investment in work equipment I have ever made, saving me tons of transcription time. I've had it repaired twice over the years and dread the day that they tell me that it can't be fixed anymore. I'm sure there are more modern systems that probably cost less, but I wonder if any still use 60 minute tape cassettes.

Date: Mon, 28 Feb 2000 11:58:14 EST From:

Never check baggage that you can't afford to lose.

Norman wrote: Sometimes the guy is really articulate and will dictate 800 words of great copy and all I have to do is stick in a few "he said"s. Sometimes the guy isn't articulate and I have to tediously figure it out from the tape.<

And sometimes the "guy" is a woman!

Sorry, Norman, I couldn't resist. :)

Date: Mon, 28 Feb 2000 17:42:58 EST From:

Jennie writes:

Might it be amusing and also useful to compile a dress code by discipline -- for reference? At the extreme, geologists and cardiologists certainly dress differently from one another.<

I've also observed that medical meetings differ by the meals they serve. At heart meetings, the menu is heavy on poached fish, green veggies garnished with lemon juice, berries with yogurt sauce for dessert, etc. At cancer meetings, on the other hand, the docs tend to chow down on cheesecake, pie, roast beef, croissants, and the like. I once asked a health care administrator who attends far more meetings than I if he had noticed this, and why he thought it was. He agreed with my observation. "The cancer docs know the truth," he said.

"What truth is that?" I asked.

He answered, "You want to die of a heart attack."

Date: Mon, 28 Feb 2000 19:09:44 -0700 From: Richard Robinson

Susan Volkmar wrote:

However, I used it mainly as a backup, relying primarily on paper & pen. Helpful when they suddenly kill the lights completely for slides (ever had a pen run out of ink when you're writing in darkness?)<

The best pharmaceutical freebie I ever saw was a pen given away by Copaxone, which had a little flashlight in the tip, expressly designed so you could take notes in a dark lecture hall.

Date: Mon, 6 Mar 2000 09:35:52 -0500 From: "Alan Wachter"

I find it easier to skim through copy on screen than to search through audio tapes. My alternative for long and complex assignments that require deeper understanding than interviews can provide is to build a transcriptionist's fee into my fee for the assignment. Many articles include direct quotes from presenters, and it's easy to pull quotes directly from a floppy disk transcript.

Date: Mon, 06 Mar 2000 10:07:53 -0500 From: Norman Bauman

I once hired a medical transcriptionist to transcribe a 2-hour panel for me, because I had a client who could pay the bill. I paid her $200, and she did a great job, but it took her 10 hours. (Her usual work was transcribing case reports for doctors.) If I had to do it again, I'd pay her $300.

I got her by putting a notice on the newsgroup, which is another story.

How much do people pay for transcripts?

Date: Mon, 06 Mar 2000 08:58:43 -0600 From: Lara Pullen

I pay $50/hour to a friend who has medical transcription training and a Masters in immunology. Maybe it is too much, but I know that she is doing a great job. Also, Martha can do it more speedily and with less frustration that I ever could. I would only do this, however, for clients where the transcription cost is easily incorporated into the total bill.

If anyone is interested, I will give you her name/number/email.

Date: 18 Mar 00 08:29:37 PST From: Sue Wallace

I wanted to thank everyone for their helpful suggestions -- especially whoever mentioned that meeting rooms tend to be very cold and to dress according & to Lynne for checking on me. Everything went well and now I have a lot of writing to do.

Date: Sat, 26 Feb 2000 15:17:29 +1100 From: Katherine Austin

On the subject of traveling to meetings, I've just had my suitcase declared permanently lost by United. It's been a nasty surprise to discover that, while they did reimburse me to their limit of $650, this covers less than half the value of what I was carrying for a four-day trip, not counting the jewelry I stupidly kept in my suitcase. (And we're not talking designer clothing or diamonds, here.) It's an incredibly sexist policy, since the average man who travels light might be able to cover everything for that. But by the time you add everything that an average woman carries on an average trip, they really give you the shaft -- not to mention the time and hassle of having to go out and replace everything. At any rate, lesson learned is that from now on I guess I'll spring for the additional baggage insurance.

(One positive note -- having listed my occupation as "journalist" on the claim form, I received the check very quickly...)

Date: Sat, 26 Feb 2000 17:21:27 +1100 From: Katherine Austin

Ah, I was flying L.A.-Canada, making it "international" -- guess it pays to read the fine print on the ticket.

Edward Susman wrote: I thought the limit on domestic baggage was $1,250 . . . I'd double check on that<

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 16:14:39 EST From:

What a shame! I wonder if your household insurance perhaps may cover this loss. Some policies provide coverage of a certain (small) percentage of the total coverage on household contents for things stolen while you're away from home. It's probably worth checking.

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 16:29:16 -0500 From: Norman Bauman

Screw the jewelry. Hang on to your notes. Here's another rule:

I would never check my baggage with the notes and tapes that I take at the meeting. That's the point of the whole trip. That goes with me in my shoulder bag on the plane, in the airport, in cabs, everywhere.

I know somebody who spent a couple of weeks in Europe at different conferences. One of her bags got stolen on a train, and she lost her notes.

Date: Sun, 27 Feb 2000 14:45:29 -0700 From: Jennie Dusheck

Norman wrote:

Screw the jewelry. Hang on to your notes.<

And if you have a bad back and lots of paper, another option is to pile it all into a FedEx box and send it home by itself. Not quite as safe as carrying it, but almost, and much safer than entrusting it to the airline.

Date: Mon, 28 Feb 2000 05:41:34 -0500

From: Norman Bauman

I haven't checked a bag since I read this story./