My first conference…

…by Catherine / from the United Kingdom / PhD Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society / 1st Year

Hi everyone, I’m Cat and I’m in the 1st year of my PhD, gulp! I’m only 6 weeks in so when people ask me what I’m studying I usually add the disclaimer “but it will probably change a million times between now and the end of first year.” I also add this disclaimer because, as several people have told me, it’s a controversial area. However, for you, I’ll just lay it out there – I’m looking at the relationships between patient groups and pharmaceutical companies in the context of health technology assessment.

Health technology assessment (or HTA) is a process that involves evaluating a drug or other health technology, such as a device, for several markers like clinical effectiveness or cost-effectiveness. This is followed by a recommendation as to whether the health technology should be adopted by the health system, be it at a local or national level. This is fine, what makes it controversial is the pharmaceutical-patient group connection because there are concerns that the patient groups being funded by pharma compromises their independence when they give evidence at HTAs.

This topic brought me to my first conference, entitled “Public values and plurality in health priority setting: consistency, coherence and consensus”. It’s a mouthful. This was an intimidating fact, because it left me feeling like if I struggled to follow the title I probably wasn’t knowledgable/smart enough to be attending the conference. This was largely untrue, a fact that showed me I’d learned more than I’d realised from my weeks of question refining reading. Equally there were some I struggled to follow, but there was no test at the end of it so all I had to do was try and learn as much as I could from it.

Ultimately my supervisor, who was speaking at the conference, had recommended it and I felt if she suggested it, knowing how early in the PhD I was, then it probably would be useful. And it was indeed useful. This was partly because of the topic and partly because of the opportunity to meet people in the field.

I met the first such person by choosing a seat next to him, introducing myself and my institution, where it turned out to be a small world as he was from the University of Edinburgh. Not quite the horizon expanding I expected, but I think he will be a useful local contact with a depth of knowledge as the PhD progresses. Next I met someone with a more international slant, who was looking to expand HTA across low and middle income countries. This was an angle I’d thought about before, so it was fascinating to meet someone working in the field and hear about the reality of trying to make it work. My third encounter was more awkward as I joined a conversation where I delivered my topic title to a response about how I needed to be really careful looking at it. As stated at the outset I’m aware it’s a controversial topic, but it’s not motivational to be told so by a stranger with expertise in the field. That said I was able to take it in my stride, as I’ve settled more comfortably into confidence with my topic. But it’ll probably change a million times between now and the end of first year.

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