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Posters at Medical Meetings: The Real Story

Posters at Medical Meetings: The Real Story

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A study presented as a poster at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium received widespread notoriety because it reported that certain subgroups of patients from a much larger study who had undergone hysterectomy and were on estrogen therapy actually had a lower risk of subsequent breast cancer. For some reason the symposium distributed this information in a press release and it was swallowed whole by some media outlets such as Science Daily and MedPage Today. The resulting confusion [most studies show that estrogen use is associated with a higher risk of contracting breast cancer] has caused the symposium's press conference moderator to regret having featured the poster according to Crystal Phend, a MedPage Today blogger.

Some members of the medical press may be unaware of the manner in which posters are chosen for presentation. In many organizations it works like this. Abstracts are submitted to the organization for oral presentation, which is much more prestigious than simply presenting a poster. An oral presentation requires that the completed paper be submitted to one or more discussants for rigorous peer review prior to the date of the oral presentation. Papers rejected for oral presentation are often accepted as posters without any critical review at all.

For example, the Society of Critical Care Medicine [SCCM] has accepted 1025 posters for its upcoming meeting in January of 2011. The quality of some of the research is quite spotty. One abstract [title available on request] states, "While comparing pre and post [intervention] patients, survival to discharge showed a non-statistical but clinically significant improvement from 29% to 42%. (OR 1.76, 95% CI 0.5-5.9)" This of course is a scientifically inaccurate statement.

Why do organizations accept all submitted abstracts as posters? I believe it is because accepting all submitted abstracts as posters significantly increases meeting attendance. At least one author of the 1025 accepted posters will probably attend the SCCM meeting to be present when the poster is briefly discussed at sessions known as "Professor's Walk Rounds" or similar names.

There is reward for the authors as well, who can pad their CVs with references to their research as having been "accepted as a poster presentation at SCCM."

Bottom line. Exercise extreme caution when reporting the results of research presented in a poster.

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