The European Congress of Radiology –
a European success story
he annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America is better known by the abbreviation of the organizing society: the RSNA. Every year, during the week after the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S.A., it attracts tens of thousands of radiologists, support personnel, hospital administrators, physicists, and exhibitors to Chicago; to be exact, in 1996 more than 61,500 people attended this meeting, among them 27,250 medical professionals.
The first time I attended the RSNA, it left a deep impression on me. At that time I lived in New York and I had taken an early morning flight to Chicago. I checked in to my hotel and walked (sic!) to McCormick Place, where both the congress and the exhibition took place. I registered and entered the exhibition hall, but then left ten minutes later intimidated and speechless. The registration lines were gigantic, the scientific program was stunning – but it was the exhibition which finally scared me off completely. I just turned around and walked back to my hotel.
Today I do not have such problems any more. My expectations have changed. When I attend the RSNA, I know that I go to this radiological Disneyland to be entertained, to see some of the new commercial developments, and to attend very few lectures. It has become both too big a scientific conference and too big a trade show, being topped only by Medica, the medical trade show in Düsseldorf, Germany, which attracts some 110,000 participants and visitors every year.
Of all the major radiological congresses, I consider the European Congress of Radiology (ECR) to be the best. With 12,500 participants it is a large size meeting, but both the participants and the organizers can handle this size.
Usually nobody pays much attention to the self-praise at opening or closing ceremonies of conferences, but that included in the speech by Hans Ringertz, the president of ECR ’97, was well deserved. The meeting in the spring of 1997 in Vienna had everything you hope to get from such a meeting.
The conference comprised balanced presentations from all modalities, teaching courses and state-of-the-art lectures on the latest results in research and development, poster and commercial exhibits which were not completely overpowering, an extremely smooth organization, and, last but not least, a pleasant social program in one of the most beautiful cities of Europe.
The inner city of Vienna can easily be conquered by foot and the congress center, although outside the inner city, is within easy reach and close to the well-functioning public transportation system. Vienna has the additional advantage of being centrally located in Europe, and being a neutral territory in radiological politics, it is an acceptable meeting place for participants from most of Europe.
ECR and EAR - who is who?
The official arranger of the ECR is EAR, the European Association of Radiology. This organization used to have the reputation of being an association dominated by arteriosclerotic radiological functionaries. A few of them are still around, such as the Russian who felt that all ECR-sponsored travel grants for Russian attendees should be distributed by him, rather than by an ECR committee, because he knows best. Generally, however, there has been a change of attitude from national society bureaucrats to open-minded and flexible, though not directly elected, representatives. For the future it would be desirable to have a transparent and democratic institution, accessible to all European radiologists.
To build up the infrastructure of a congress such as the ECR and to make it run, you need a dedicated core of people who invest all their time and energy over many years in such an endeavor. More than a dozen well-known radiologists have done that. Among them Josef Lissner, Albert L. Baert, Hans G. Ringertz, and, in recent years, Roberto Passariello stand out. Also important have been the people in the background: Peter Baierl and his team, who lead the permanent staff of the congress and have built up a perfect organization with well-functioning logistics.
In addition, there are cohorts of radiologists and other medical professionals working all year round to assure the quality of the scientific and educational presentations. ECR depends on their individual and combined endurance, drive, and efficiency to keep up and control the high level of the program.
Of course, there were also some faults at this year’s meeting. The exhibition space was limited and scattered, so that it was difficult to get an overview. Compared to the RSNA, the message system was difficult to use and the press facilities were insufficient. The latter points are easy to overcome.
It seems that the worst problem will be solved by the next ECR. The exhibition facilities are to be expanded in the future. By 1999 there should be a new exhibition hall, which hopefully will solve the hide-and-seek game in Austria Center.
Radiology in Europe
European radiology is multilayered. In many instances there are no general trends as in the U.S.A., but the different European health systems, cultures, and politics result in many discrepant opinions and schools. The differences are enormous – not only those between Germany and Albania, for instance, but also between countries in which the prevalent diseases and thus radiological indications are not substantially different, such as Great Britain and France. A major meeting such as the ECR is of advantage for the European idea and for patients at large. Over the years, discussions should lead to a consensus in radiological diagnostics and therapy. Unifying radiology in Europe in this way would be a great step forward.
One sad aspect of the ECR is the lack of participation from France and Great Britain. For France, the reasons are easy to explain, for Britain more difficult.
The only radiological event in Europe comparable in size to the ECR is the annual Journées Françaises de Radiologie which appeals to French-speaking radiologists from Europe, Africa and the Americas. The Paris meeting is a good alternative for French-speaking radiologists for whom English could present an obstacle. There are also French objections to the all-embracing and overpowering Anglo-American culture and politics. This is an attitude many other European share – but the course of history has resulted in American English becoming the scientific language of the second half of the 20th century.
The Radiological Society of North America comprises the three North American countries Canada, the U.S.A., and Mexico, with the U.S.A. being the dominating country. From the outset, the annual meeting was basically a one-country, one-language meeting. In contrast it took a long time in Europe to compromise and have meetings in one language only – although some native speakers of American-English and British-English still have difficulties understanding Euro-Fizz English. In the long run, even they will learn to understand this language.
British participation in the ECR seems to be hampered by the relatively small number of qualified radiologists on the island. Moreover, money is scarce for radiologists in the British health system and traveling in Europe is expensive. On the other hand, there are some excellent radiological academic institutions which could contribute more to a congress like the ECR.
More still to come
From 1999, the ECR will change from its two-year rhythm to being an annual congress. For some this is a controversial issue, although (or because) this move will establish the conference solidly as the main congress in Europe and, partly, Africa and the Middle East. However, the annual frequency might hit some of the ailing national congresses in a similar way that supermarkets have killed or altered the small corner shop.
Still, national conferences and, in particular, specialized seminars and small-scale teaching courses will continue to exist and flourish because they are the backbone of continuing education.
Some commercial companies are opposed to an annual European conference. They would prefer one single big commercial show per year – in the U.S.A.
They have a good argument in their favor. For them the United States of America is the biggest market in the world for imaging equipment and accessories with approximately 52%, followed by Japan (26%) and Germany (11%). Compared to these countries, all other markets are marginal (France 4%, Italy 3%, Great Britain 2.5%). However, the advocates for a U.S.-based world fair of radiological equipment do not seem to understand the needs of their potential customers. They also forget that Europe still buys nearly one quarter of their production and that much research towards developing their products stems from European academic and industrial research sites.
Moreover, one should hope that the exhibition planners of some companies will learn from past experiences of congress attendees in Vienna and Chicago, where many participants either did not find the booth they were looking for or could not get into the booth because it was overcrowded. Some companies should also acquire the knowledge on how to design a booth in a way that potential visitors are not deterred from entering.
Value for money
Individual membership of ECR is another major step forward. At last there is a member organization of European radiologists, not only a representation of national organizations through the EAR.
As a member of the German Roentgen Society, DRG, I pay an annual membership fee of DM 300. In return, members have free access to the annual German Roentgen congress and they receive free newsletters, which are usually reprints of the opening speeches at this congress. The scientific program is not made available to all members, and a subscription to DRG’s journal amounts to another DM 500 per year – in other words: little value for money.
The annual membership fee of the RSNA for European members is US$ 280. This includes the subscription to a newsletter and the journals Radiology and RadioGraphics as well as free access to the annual scientific meeting for the member and one guest and the complete book of abstracts, whether you attend the meeting or not. This represents good value for money.
For a mere 500 Austrian shillings (approximately DM 70) per year, the conference fee of ECR members is substantially lowered. Ultimately it is expected that they will pay no fee at all. Members also receive a newsletter, the abstracts of the ECR (if they attend or not), and the journal European Radiology. During the last years this journal has developed into a serious radiological journal with high scientific standing.
Because the ECR also seems to offer value for money, I hope that the number of 3,000 members necessary to reach the break-even point will be met soon. In this case, there will not only be a powerful scientific European radiological society but also a stable European Congress of Radiology where it will be worthwhile to present the latest scientific results and commercial breakthroughs (not only) originating in Europe.