Going to medical conferences has many benefits -- but with up-to-the-minute reporting of breaking medical news from conferences, the wide availability of free podcasts, and the inexpensiveness of MP3 players -- listening to lectures is not one of them.
Consider the cost of a typical conference. Figure $250 for airfare, $300 (at least) for hotel, and another $300 (give or take) for the conference itself. That's at least $850 for a few days (not even counting potential lost revenue). In total, some conferences can cost $1500 or more.
Compare this to an alternative. The most inexpensive iPod, the shuffle, costs about $79. Using the specialty of nephrology and hypertension as an example, the site HDCN.com provides countless lectures from most major nephrology conferences for $85 a year. And other sites for other specialities also provide high-quality podcasts inexpensively or for free. (If you'd like to recommend sites with medical podcasts for other specialities, please leave a comment.)
When the cost of a single conference -- at $850 to $1500 -- is compared with the cost of listening to a year's worth of podcasts, anywhere, whenever you want to -- at roughly $79 to $170 -- it's easy to see that the primary benefit of conferences is not the lectures, but travel and socializing. And the benefit of face-to-face time is not trivial. I've spoken to a few veteran conference-goers who admit to skipping all the lectures (with the exception of one or two entertaining speakers) and spending the majority of time interacting with colleagues and friends.
I've posted a four part "Introduction to Medical Podcasts" on the Tech Medicine blog, here.