Digestive Disease Week: Where the Future of Gastroenterology Unfolds

I arrived last night in San Diego to attend Digestive Disease Week 2012, which officially begins this morning, Saturday May 19. I will be writing some notes in this blog over the next few days about new information presented at the meeting, so I thought it might perhaps be helpful to tell readers a little bit about the nature of this gigantic gastroenterology conference to provide background and context for those posts.

Digestive Disease Week, or DDW, is an extraordinary annual event. Held in May each year, it is the world’s largest meeting of GI professionals. It is a gathering of about eighteen thousand people altogether (based on 2011 figures): Approximately fifteen thousand of them are clinicians, researchers and academicians whose work focuses on the gastrointestinal tract. The rest are support staff as well as a couple of thousand people from industry – companies that are there to exhibit GI products and services and connect with the GI professionals attending the meeting.

For researchers like myself who study gastrointestinal disorders, DDW is the most comprehensive and prestigious scientific meeting in the topic area, so it is almost a must to attend – both to present the progress we are making in our own research and to learn what is new in the work of other investigators. The meeting is kind of like an enormous empirical harvest festival. GI researchers across the U.S. and all over the world spend weeks or months each autumn processing and interpreting their latest crop of data in order to summarize their findings in succinct research abstracts that are submitted in December for next year’s DDW. All of the thousands of submitted abstracts are then reviewed by topic experts, and the abstracts that are of good quality and have sufficient information value are selected for presentation at the meeting. The great majority of the accepted research abstracts are presented as posters, which means that the researchers stand during certain pre-designated two-hour periods in front of large boards with text, graphs and tables that detail their studies, and interested colleagues come by to ask questions about the research and share ideas. Certain research studies that are of importance or likely to be of high interest to a lot of attendees are selected for oral presentations with slides in large meeting rooms.

One of the most exciting things about DDW is that because the studies presented at the meeting are generally the very latest work of each research team, and often that work is still in progress, attending the meeting gives a veritable glimpse into the future. You get an advance look at what is coming in the field — such as new emerging treatments, new scientific discoveries and highly innovative projects —  months or years before it is published in professional journals or covered in the media.

In addition to all of these presentations of research studies,  there are also invited talks by top experts in the field on important issues, as well as symposia providing educational updates in particular areas. So whatever your focus is within the field, you can count on learning from the leading authorities in that domain, and if there is something important that you need expert perspective on, you can generally even find opportunities to ask them in person.

With about five thousand research summaries presented during the meeting and numerous expert updates and educational sessions on top of that, DDW can easily feel overwhelming.  Of course, no one person is interested in nearly all of this information content, for it covers such a wide range of topics on anything and everything related to digestive diseases. But even keeping up with one’s own particular sub-interest area within GI at the meeting is more than enough to handle. It is fortunate, therefore, that Digestive Disease Week is not really a week in spite of the name (although for some attendees, add-on meetings and training courses can stretch it out to a full week). DDW is formally four days of non-stop meetings and presentations.  On the last day it is not uncommon to see people sitting on the floor in the hallways staring into space, or standing around with a dazed look on their faces that spells “please speak slowly – brain full”.

Beyond all the formal scientific and clinical presentations, DDW also serves tremendously important social and networking functions. Under the umbrella of this mega-meeting various smaller groups hold their meetings, scientific teams from different parts of the world meet with each other, and like-minded professionals get and give feedback and advise, network, share ideas, and build and reinforce important collaborations. It always amazes me to observe the amount of dynamic and formative exchanges of ideas that happens at the meeting. People really listen to each other and the course of work that is still in progress is significantly shaped as a result. I have repeatedly read journal articles where the analyses and presentation of research findings have clearly been influenced by the comments and discussions that I witnessed or even personally participated in at DDW. In some cases whole extra studies have even been conducted after constructive feedback from colleagues at the meeting.

Our research team always comes back from DDW energized — full of new ideas from work presented there and interactions with other investigators, more knowledgable than before about what is emerging, and better prepared to make progress in the work of the coming year. That is how important DDW is. It is the place where the future of gastroenterology unfolds, and to no small extent it is the meeting that drives that progress. And you plain and simple do not want to miss out on all of that.


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