The medical conference industry: selling exotic travel junkets, or useful education?

The AMA has been campaigning hard against cha

Melissa Sweet — Health journalist and <a href=Croakey co-ordinator" class="author__portrait">

Melissa Sweet

Health journalist and Croakey co-ordinator

The AMA has been campaigning hard against changes to tax deductions for work-related self-education that are likely, amongst other things, to reduce the attractiveness of conferences in exotic locations.

Paul Smith, political editor at Australian Doctor, has exposed one of the vulnerabilities of the AMA’s campaign with a story about its Queensland branch’s annual conference, to be held at a luxurious venue in Chile.

It would be interesting to know the total value of tax deductions claimed by doctors for such trips every year. A related topic worth investigating is inequities in access to continuing education for the various types of health professionals.

Another issue worth exploring is what the FOAM (Free Open Access Meducation) movement means for the medical conference industry. Are traditional medical conferences losing relevance?

Thanks to Paul Smith for allowing republication of his report below (part one is his original story, followed by AMAQ’s response.)


AMA’s campaign for tax deductible conference travel stretches to Chile

Paul Smith writes:

The AMA’s campaign against plans to cap tax breaks for medical education has been hit by revelations its Queensland branch will hold its annual conference in Chile at a five-star hotel with “lagoon-style swimming pool”.

The six-day trip to Santiago includes an “air and land” package costing up to $6700 per doctor, with delegates — according to the AMA brochure — staying at the Grand Hyatt, “home to world class, multi-cuisine, restaurants [and] a lagoon-style swimming pool with a waterfall”.

Expected to attract 140 doctors, the September event includes four half-day conference sessions with around 20 hours of medical education on topics such as an “Overview of international health systems and standards — how does Australia stack up?”.

Australian Doctor was told that 30 CPD points — accredited by the RACGP — would be available for GPs who attend.

The Federal Government has been universally savaged over its plans to introduce a $2000 cap on tax deductions for work-related self-education expenses.

Last month, Treasurer Wayne Swan said he wanted to target people claiming tax breaks for “first class travel and five star hotels”.

In response, the AMA warned doctors across all specialities would face significant cost hikes for their medical education under the revamp, which is planned from July next year.

Last week, the AMA released results of an online poll of more than 4200 doctors, which found 98% believed the tax changes proposed by the government would “seriously impair” their professional development as a doctors.

AMA president Dr Steve Hambleton said at the time: “I don’t think the government has thought through the impact of these changes on doctors and a whole range of other professionals who must continually update their skills and knowledge throughout their careers, at their own expense.

“It will create a huge disincentive for doctors to pursue specialised education that benefits the whole community.”

Australian Doctor is seeking comment from AMA Queensland (added at the bottom of this post).

Meanwhile, Unconventional Conventions — a medical education company also running conferences in exotic locations like the Arctic Circle and Mongolia — claims the proposed tax changes could mean an additional cost to doctors of $2000-$6000 to attend some events.

Currently, individual doctors can claim the whole cost of their trip as a tax deduction, typically at a rate of 45%.

Managing director Mark Cunich said his company generally ran seven-day conferences, comprising more than 30 hours of medical content and two days of sightseeing.

But other providers offered 18-day conferences with as little as 12 hours of medical content, he claimed.

“I think that that’s how this issue has come about. People like them are running junkets, basically.” he said.

“Some people call what we do junkets as well, but when we run 30 hours of medical content in a five-day week, others would consider that to be almost a full-time working week.”

Unconventional Conventions co-managing director Margot Cunich said doctors would still opt to travel for their CPD because of the unique experience and peer interaction.

“They find that going to different parts of the world makes them more broad-minded. They like the opportunity we give them to go to local clinics or hospitals and sometimes do a bit of voluntary work, and see how the other system works, see what medical issues there are in other parts of the world.”

AMAQ response

AMA Queensland’s annual conference is planned for 22-28 September 2013 in Santiago, Chile.

The conference theme is ‘Health Worldwide – challenges and directions’ and includes eminent speakers addressing issues such as: how Australia fares in comparison to international health systems, Indigenous and refugee health challenges, Medecins Sans Frontieres operations and opportunities, a PNG Case study and opportunities with Australian Doctors International, primary care for the homeless, medical education at home and abroad etc.

The conference is one of numerous professional development events coordinated by AMA Queensland each year which offer myriad opportunities for medical professionals to further their skills and experience.

The numerous benefits of attending such a medical conference include learning about the latest developments in medicine and health care, engaging with professional peers from Australia and overseas, collectively sharing and discussing ideas, theories and new information, and contributing to AMA policy development among others.

AMA members who attend the conference are self-funded and focused on improving patient care.


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4 thoughts on “The medical conference industry: selling exotic travel junkets, or useful education?

  1. mark medical

    OK a couple of points:

    Firstly, I can handle this myself due to my income and my very modest CME expenses (I go to conferences right here in Sydney and pay twenty bucks for weekend parking). This is an issue for relatively low-paid trainees who pay a quarter of their salary for training. Even Treasury have belatedly worked this out and are revising their plans.

    Now DeeB you are right. I am out of the public system myself. Their CME entitlements are, frankly, lavish. A multiple of what I spend. Mind you there are various aspects of their remuneration which are out of proportion including this, which arose because the governments refused to increase base pay (so as not to set a precedent for other unions). Note that I get zero days and no dollars per year in the private system. Which leads to the next point Pusscat-

    If I may be blunt. This is a business. If BHP set up a mine in Chile they naturally enough pay for the equipment and site visits etc out of pre-tax revenue. Hopefully they make a profit on their enterprise and then pay tax and shareholders. But my only capital is my training and my intellect. As a social democrat with a very healthy private practice (albeit one that got off the ground 22 years after finishing school!) I don’t stress out about my extraordinary income tax bills. But to get there required expensive training in some super-specialised niche areas. This is how wealth is created. Tax revenue doesn’t show up magically. It is only skills and then work that generate wealth and income that allows me to employ my employees and contribute to the community via taxation.

    To suggest that treating my business inputs as deductions to rort the taxpayer is just class envy, not a constructive way of building an affluent society. These are legitimate business deductions. Can’t you see that? I repeat, the taxation system is broken when people can deduct negative gearing expenses from unrelated income but not the costs of training. And wealthy members of society are rorting the system that way I assure you. Not to mention the fact that high-income earners received the BABY BONUS for heaven’s sake for ten years. Start with the logical changes before considering this nonsense.

  2. Pusscat

    You’re not seriously implying that high-income citizens are outraged when their rights to rort taxpayers are infringed?

  3. mark medical

    Well yes that’s all fair enough.

    But equally affected are the medical residents earning 60k pa, doing primary surgical exams with a total cost for registration, exams, courses of approx $15,000 in year one. So many more logical ways of doing this: restricting deductions to domestic travel, or applying public sector rules (economy airfares for certain flight durations). We are in a position where people can write off rental losses against income but can’t deduct the costs of a resuscitation course. It’s just a non-sequitur to suggest that cruise conferences are a problem so virtually wiping out deductibility of education is the solution.

    As for private practitioners, how can anyone run a business when your inputs are being paid from after-tax money.

  4. DeeB

    I think it’s a bit rich (forgive the pun) doctors crying poor about professional development. Check out how much a doctor working in eg in Queensland Health gets annually for professional development. It was in the region of $23, 000 annully a few years ago. I can’t imagine other states are much different. Other health professionals get about 3 days and a few hundred dollars a year. I realise it’s not like that for GPs but still it seems fairer that doctors start to be treated like others in the community who have compulsory annual CPD.

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