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Medical Meetings Across the Pond: What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger

Industry sponsors, medical associations, and third parties feel uneasy but optimistic about the future of medical meetings in Europe, according to a recent survey.

A whitepaper recently released by strategic global meetings and events solutions provider MCI identified three things medical associations, industry supporters, and third-party partners need to do to adapt to today’s micro and macro trends in medical meetings in Europe.

1. Medical associations need to adapt to uncertain sponsor revenues, greater cost pressures, and an increasing need to deliver the highest level of education and networking at their events.

2. Under the increasing regulatory spotlight, pharma industry sponsors need to track, audit, and reward compliance with transparency requirements. And not just focus on the technicalities, but also make the changes in how they disclose interactions with healthcare providers key drivers in changing public perception about their businesses. It would be helpful to have an industry spokesperson who could crystallize the changes for the general public.

3. The European regulatory landscape is fragmented and difficult to maneuver. MCI suggests that industry, associations, regulators, and patients should work together to shape a future European continuing medical education framework that will improve knowledge and, ultimately, patient care.

The three “reframing must-haves” are based on a 10-question survey sent to three medical associations, four pharma industry sponsors, two regulators, and three third-parties based in Europe, the U.K., and the U.S. in late 2013. The survey asked for their views on the current state of the medical meeting sector. Here’s some of what they had to say.

• More than three-quarters agreed that healthcare compliance regulations and disclosure requirements have a positive impact on how the industry is perceived by the public, with just 16 percent disagreeing. The paper discusses how the “dancing with the porcupine” analogy of physician/pharma relations has permeated the public perception, with studies showing that patients are less likely to trust a doctor’s judgment when that doc has received a gift from pharma for listening to a product pitch.

Pharma reputations also are considered somewhat suspect for many in the patient population, the whitepaper says, due to unfavorable media coverage. “Recent compliance regulation and transparency initiatives offer a potential mechanism to reframe perceptions and to neutralize some of the negative thinking,” says the report.  However, there remains a challenge in ensuring that the newly transparent data is presented in context so the public can understand what it actually represents. “Failure to proactively turn disclosure data in to a positive message will be a real missed opportunity,” according to the whitepaper.

• The results were less overwhelming when respondents were asked if medical associations should play a lead role in helping sponsors meet their HCP spend reporting obligations, with 61 percent agreeing to some extent and 23 percent disagreeing. This could mean collecting physician prescriber numbers and other unique identifiers at registration, then providing them to sponsors and exhibitors so they could meet their reporting requirements. The reporting obligation remains the sponsor’s; associations can just help facilitate the process.

• Just over half thought that healthcare compliance regulations were directly responsible for improving the quality of medical education, even though that is more of a byproduct than the aim of the HCRs. As respondent Christian Mutschlechner, director of the Vienna Convention Bureau, said: “Any association who does not deliver high-quality education is dead... quality has to be the focus.”

• All agreed, to a greater or lesser extent, that healthcare regulations should be harmonized across Europe into a single code. If you think the U.S. is complicated, with state and federal regulations sometimes at odds, it’s even tougher in Europe, where cross-border and international meetings are common. While no single code exists, there remains hope that a harmonization could happen at some future point, though the respondents didn’t think it would happen any time soon due to the complexity of existing systems and the cultural shifts that would be needed to make it happen.

• All but 8 percent agreed that the current business model for continuing medical education is changing. For one, individual delegate sponsorship, already disallowed in the U.S., is headed for extinction in Europe as well. On the plus side, a recent survey by the Vienna Convention Bureau found that 80 percent of docs said they’d continue to attend medical meetings on their own dime, as long as the content was worth it. And the giant general conventions may be giving way to smaller, niche-specific peer-to-peer meetings, according to some respondents.

• The respondents were fairly evenly split over whether or not they believed medical associations had a good grasp on the current regulatory environment. This is no easy task in Europe, where national differences abound. Larger medical associations that are lucky enough to have dedicated compliance officers are able to keep up. Smaller associations may have a harder time staying abreast of the regulatory changes and compliance requirements.

• Respondents also were split over whether medical associations are sympathetic toward sponsor companies’ reporting obligations, though all agreed that it’s important to understand compliance and transparency requirements, and to have strict policies in place to manage sponsor-HCP interactions at an association event.

• Only 8 percent believe that compliance regulations will prevent industry from providing any kind of support to medical associations in the future. Despite calls in the U.S. for associations to spurn all commercial support for conferences, and the American Medical Student Association’s PharmFree movement designed to wean tomorrow’s docs off all transfers of value from pharma, industry sponsorship is still an important factor for medical association meetings, along with government support.

Industry funding is especially key in countries that do not have much government funding for CME, according to the whitepaper. Docs also believe industry sponsorship is still a vital piece of the funding puzzle, the report finds, citing a 2013 Ethical Standards in Health and Life Sciences Group study that shows three-quarters of HCPs believe industry sponsorship of medical education for HCPs is extremely valuable for European and international meetings, though not so much for local and national meetings.

• Sixty-two percent believed medical associations also may have to comply with transparency reporting regulations in the future, though they remain unsure about the extent and form those regulations may take.

• All but 16 percent felt there was reason for optimism about the future of medical associations and their meetings. Education, new research dissemination, and networking are vital, and medical meetings are still the best way to provide those services, respondents said. As respondent Susie Hide, director, European Association of Neurosurgical Societies, pointed out in the whitepaper, “The fact that compliance legislation is forcing us to be more inventive in selection of topics and formats will ultimately strengthen the position of medical meetings rather than undermine them.”

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