Letters from Maine

Death by meeting


I like to project an image of a renegade who at times ventures outside the norms of the profession, but when there are rules, I try to follow them. However, I will confess that for the last 10 or 12 years that I was in practice, I flagrantly disobeyed our hospital’s requirement for attendance at staff meetings. In fact, I didn’t attend a single one for more than a decade.

Doctors sitting at a table Thinkstock
I did sign in on the sheet that sat on the table outside of the cafeteria where the meetings were held. But I quickly exited and returned to my office for our scheduled Thursday evening hours. Staying for the meeting didn’t feel like a good investment of my time.

I can’t say that I have never attended what I would consider a good meeting. But the number of meetings that I have I attended that could qualify as time well spent is small ... very small.

Often, the first problem is that the stated or implied goal of the meeting was poorly conceived. That is, if the person who called for the meeting had even considered setting a goal. If the purpose of the meeting was to convey information, there are so many more efficient ways to achieve that goal without pulling people away from their primary missions. In the case of a physician, this would translate to seeing patients.

In this electronic age, emails, videos, social media sites, hard-copy handouts, and memos reach the target audience more efficiently and with more clarity than a sit-down meeting does. If the purpose of the meeting also was to elicit feedback about the new information, that same suite of communication vehicles can be structured to function as effective sounding boards.

If the purpose of the meeting is to foster camaraderie and team spirit, then it clearly should be labeled as a team building exercise. However, the organizers should have done enough research into the proposed activity to be reasonably confident that it will achieve the goal of improved team spirit.

If the goal of the meeting is create something – for example – an office policy about stimulant medication, then that goal must be narrowly focused by an agenda published well ahead of the meeting. In this case, the agenda could include the questions: How often should the patient be seen? If the patient is not going to be seen, what questions should he or she be asked? Who will ask them? And where in the chart should this information be filed?

No meeting should last longer than an hour and a half, but an hour is optimal. If the goal has not been achieved, then a second meeting with a more realistic agenda should be scheduled. Attendees who have been assigned tasks for completion before the next meeting should be contacted several days before the rescheduled meeting. There are few things more frustrating than to sit down at a meeting and discover that homework critical to completing the goals has not been done.

Finally, I must caution to avoid meetings organized or chaired by people who have nothing better to do than go to meetings. Some of those folks may even enjoy the social atmosphere of a meeting, and many are likely being paid to attend. Meanwhile, they are squandering your productive face-to-face patient care time.

Courtesy Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”

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