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A ready man?—The evidential and ethical basis for conferences
  1. JOHN ASHTON CBE, Joint Editor
    1. MAGGI MORRIS, Assistant Editor, news and innovations

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      “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man and writing an exact man” (Bacon)

      Bacon is not alone in having been moved to consider the value of conferences (fig 1). For John Kenneth Galbraith, “ . . .conferences need to be understood. Some of course are purely recreational. Men and sometimes women gather at the expense of a cooperation or foundation. The purpose is free or tax-paid enjoyment. The justification is the exchange of ideas and the value of this is fiercely proclaimed. It is very difficult to say in criticism of such a conference that no ideas were exchanged.

      Figure 1

      Bacon quote on public library in Kensington, Liverpool.

      Of serious conferences, very few are to exchange information and fewer still to reach decisions. Most are to proclaim shared purposes, to reveal to the participants that they are not alone and thus reinforce confidence. Or they are to stimulate action where action is impossible. By acting, they persuade the participants, and often others, that something is happening when nothing is happening or can happen.”

      A recent conference held in Thailand and organised by the World Health Organisation underlines Galbraith's analysis, raises new questions about the evidence base for the impact of this kind of intervention on population health and the ethical base of this kind of jamboree and throws doubt on Bacon's conclusion.

      The stated purpose of the four day conference, held in the beach resort of Phuket and entitled Towards Unity for Health, was “ . . .to study and promote approaches that can create convergence or even integration between health care activities which too often are conducted in isolation from each other by different stakeholders. The ultimate goal is to improve the overall performance of the health system [sic—that is, not just the health care system] and facilitate …

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