I’m sure I’m not shocking you when I say not all scientific conferences fulfil the promises of their themes/slogans. The inaugural Annual Scientific Meeting (ASM) of the Rehabilitation Medicine Society of Australia and New Zealand (RMSANZ), however, truly lived up to its theme. It was “Change. Challenge. Opportunity.

The RMSANZ ASM was held from October 16-19, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. Delegates came from all over Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, South-East Asia, India and Sri Lanka, and even from as far away as Saudi Arabia. One of the wonderful benefits of the ASM was the opportunity to meet rehabilitation physicians from around the world, compare the systems we work in and the challenges we face, and to provide ideas from our different environments and perspectives.

The list of invited speakers was an impressive ensemble of rehabilitation physicians, medical specialists from other disciplines, and scientists from all over the world. A cast of eminent local RMSANZ members and allied health professionals supported them.

Dr David (DJ) Kennedy from Stanford University (USA) opened the meeting with a fascinating talk on how even the most basic statistics and analyses we use in our research might be flawed. This is despite conventional wisdom and wide acceptance. It was a great start to the conference, and reflected the theme beautifully. And it was an absolute paradigm shift for me.

For me suddenly the ASM was not just about the future – the changes that are coming, the challenges we will face and the opportunities that we may need to adopt. It also became about the changes we should be making now to our current practice, the challenges we should pose to the current status quo, and the opportunities we can create now, by changing our traditional way of thinking. Therefore the theme became active, not just passive.

The next day Professor Jianan Li from Nanjing Medical University (China) presented the George Burniston Oration to open the plenary, Rehabilitation in the Era of New Global Health: Challenges and Opportunities. He gave a fascinating insight into the development of rehabilitation medicine as a speciality in China. It is often too easy for current trainees and recent Fellows (myself included) to forget that the speciality of Rehabilitation Medicine was also only recently developed in Australia and New Zealand. Like China, we owe a great debt of gratitude to those who have gone before us and championed the speciality. Again the message coming through was “be active, not passive”.

One of the most popular talks came next in the plenary Opportunity Knocks: Rehabilitation Physicians as Entrepreneurs. Dr Gaetan Tardif of the University of Toronto presented his experience on service development in Canada. He also introduced his team’s latest innovation, a device for diagnosing obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) that patients can use at home, with data downloaded to a central lab. OSA is not a traditional rehab area, which again perfectly reflected the theme of the ASM. The talk was inspirational and practical in equal measure. The device is yet to receive funding for market launch, but watch this space closely.

Research was, as it should be, a major feature of the conference. To our benefit it included a great deal of research presented by our allied health colleagues. At times this was done in partnership with rehabilitation physicians, but not always, revealing an opportunity gap. Based on the presentations I saw, we should definitely team up with our allied health colleagues more often in research projects. It will be to everyone’s benefit.

A huge part of the programme for Australian delegates was discussion around the changing national funding model for disability support. The federal government’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is the only scheme of its kind in the world. Its aim is to put the control into the hands of the disabled by providing them the funds for their needs (equipment etc) to procure from providers of their choice. It’s a paradigm shift for Australian disability services. We were fortunate to have the CEO of the NDIA (the agency that oversees the NDIS), Mr David Bowen, speak about the vision and the experience so far (in the test centres). He was followed by local Fellows, who talked about their experiences dealing with the NDIS system in these test centres. The juxtaposition was fascinating.

RMSANZ Special Interest Groups (SIGs) also met at the ASM. The RMSANZ SIGs cover a broad range of interests including MSK, neurological, amputee, care of the older person, and paediatric rehabilitation medicine. A new SIG, Pain, was formed at this ASM. In Australia and New Zealand, anaesthetists have traditionally dominated pain medicine, but more rehabilitation physicians are now actively getting involved.

In addition to the ASM proper, there were two full days of challenging pre-conference courses. These ranged from a Work Based Learning and Assessment workshop, a Neuroimaging examination workshop, to a full day on Strategic Thinking – Making Your Vision a Reality. Another innovative addition to the pre-conference courses was the Botulinium Toxin Certification Level 1 Injection Training, which ventured from the traditional “demonstration” model. It added hands on injections by participants under expert guidance. This was an innovation of the Society’s Botulinium Toxin Expert Working Party.

The inaugural RMSANZ ASM was a great success. It lived up to its ambitious theme, “Change. Challenge. Opportunity.” I trust it inspired many people, as it did me, to approach our current working lives in rehabilitation medicine with an attitude of actively seeking to change, challenge, and find opportunities.