Liam Farrell: A hands-on learning experience

The poster presentations at a conference have always seemed rather sad, like the fat kid with glasses who always gets picked last, but keeps turning up nevertheless, doggedly refusing to let the dream die.

The medical version of the sunk cost fallacy, the authors are so emotionally invested in the long thankless hours, the blood, tears and sweat they’ve committed in the past, they're damned if they’re going to give it up.

Not important enough to be allowed on the big stage, but unwilling just to stick their painstaking research in a drawer, they’re confined to a little atrium beside the toilets.

Those of us who have been sleeping at the back of the auditorium scurry quickly and heartlessly past as the authors desperately try to catch our eye. It’s vital to avoid eye contact at all costs, otherwise someone else will get to the doughnuts first. So during each coffee and lunch break, the poster-boyz are forced to endure this ritual humiliation, and experience the cold indifference of this imperfect world.

I’m old enough to remember the posters being a whirl of coloured crayons and stencils; now they’re the same whirl, but computer generated, and the posters are still so ultra-congested and dense you could eat them to stay regular.

By far my most memorable poster was ‘Effect on the peri-anal mucosa of regular rectal examinations’. The earnest young man was making it real; he even had a supply of rubber gloves and lubricant, and a fake anal sphincter, which he invited the fascinated yet repulsed spectators to… probe. 

There were no takers, so, pity being one of my chief virtues (along with sarcasm and apathy), I stepped forward. I was always taught to be kind to those less fortunate, whether immigrants, refugees or research registrars.

‘Feels pretty good to me,’ I said.

In accordance with rules of universal humour, someone made a farting noise.

‘It can be quite traumatic, you know,’ said the poster-boy.

‘Interesting,’ I told him, in an understatement. ‘And your conclusion was that there were no significant changes.’

A lesser man would have been crushed, but this lad was as game as a pebble.

‘Oh no,’ he said, a gleam in his eye, the gleam of the fanatic which has undermined civilisations and brought great empires crashing down in ruin. 'I’m calling for further research.’

Footnote: Since writing this column, I presented a poster myself, on social media and medicine, at the International Foundation for Integrated Care conference. And yes, I was beside the bathrooms, and yes, everyone ignored me.

  • Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Follow him on Twitter @drlfarrell

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