Is there really a difference between a medical meeting and any other business or educational meeting? It depends on where you focus.
“The logistics of meeting planning are universal whether it’s for physicians, nurses or real estate agents,” says Judy Brandes, special events planner and CME programs coordinator for St. John’s Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis. “Knowing your space needs, how to deal with exhibitors, break-outs, meals, etc. ‒ you need that kind of information for any meeting.”
But take a look at the content of that meeting and suddenly you see a bigger disparity between a physician training session and a real estate sales meeting. Compare, for instance, a “Comprehensive Advanced Conference on Real Estate Purchases & Sales” vs. “Acute Mesenteric Ischemia” as topics for meetings. Yep, there’s a difference.
Brandes’ point is that once you have the key information – speakers needed, budget, attendance numbers, dates, locations – planning a medical meeting, or supplying it, takes on a certain normalcy.
There is, however, one major issue that complicates many medical meetings – avoiding conflicts of interest or the perception of them. Whether the meeting is CME (Continuing Medical Education) certified or a conference of a medical association, planners have to be diligent in avoiding conflicts. And that can mean only one thing.
“Regulation,” says Mina Milford, CME coordinator at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City. “There are a lot of regulations you have to follow to put on an accredited CME event.”
Regulations get a bad rap, but Milford does not suggest they are without merit. She points to an April 1, 2009, article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that calls for even more vigilance.
“Because many [Professional Medical Associations] receive extensive funding from pharmaceutical and device companies,” the report says, “it is crucial that their guidelines manage both real and perceived conflicts of interest. Any threat to the integrity of PMAs must be thoroughly and effectively resolved. Current PMA policies, however, are not uniform and often lack stringency.”
The primary issue is that pharmaceutical and medical device companies, which have much to gain by meeting medical professionals, underwrite many meetings. The JAMA article does not imply this is inherently toxic.
“[T]he pharmaceutical and medical device industries make important contributions to medical progress,” the article states. “Resolving issues of conflict of interest is not best accomplished by avoiding all relationships.”
On the other hand, the problem of undue influence on medical decisions is not mythology.
“[B]oth quantitative and qualitative research demonstrates the power of gifts to bias physicians’ choices,” the journal states. “Beyond the monetary value of the exchange, the very fact of the exchange creates a conflict of interest. Even gifts of modest value foster a need to reciprocate, which then affects treatment decisions.”
Milford says that the article has already started to affect the meeting portion of her job.
“The way we do meetings is changing,” she says. “It’s going to be even harder in some ways.”
Here some examples of regulations already in place:
- No matter the size of the meeting, exhibit space has to be in a separate room from meeting space
- Meals must be relatively modest, generally under $100 per day
- Funded meetings cannot be held at resorts or other facilities perceived to be “entertainment”
- All CME meetings must be 90 percent educational in content.
“Now the Office of Inspector General is saying we can’t get grants from pharmaceutical companies for certain kinds of meetings,” Milford says, “because it raises the cost of prescription drugs in an indirect way. They’re basically saying our continuing education should not be billed to the patient.”
That means, Milford says, medical professionals are going to have to adjust to a new set of rules.
“If doctors are expected to pay their own way,” Milford says, “you are going to see more regional meetings.”
A GROWING LOCAL BUSINESS
That could be good news for suppliers in Midwestern cities, but there are some issues to understand, says Brandes.
“I work for a nonprofit organization,” says Brandes, who worked in the hospitality industry before moving into medical meeting planning. “There are guidelines that dictate some of the things that we pay or how we pay. We’re just like every other nonprofit organization in that respect.”
Another key bit of information that suppliers should understand, says Brandes, is that many medical planners don’t have a meeting background.
“If you’re in that hospital setting that hosts only two or three meetings a year, the coordinator doesn’t have a lot of experience working with hotels or other venues,” Brandes says. “Suppliers need to be asking questions – what kind of meeting space, what catering needs, what audio-visual needs will there be. They shouldn’t expect that they are working with full-time meeting planners.”
Milford is the perfect example. As a CME coordinator, her main concern is the continuing education of medical professionals. Sometimes training needs grow beyond hospital facilities, or collaboration amongst doctors creates space needs, and suddenly she’s a meeting planner.
“There was a learning curve at first,” she says. “Now I know exactly what I need. I realized you have to have checklists – you have to learn from your mistakes and minimize surprises.”
And you have to rely on the professionals you serve, both planners say. Doctors know the speakers they need, the topics that must be covered and the audience that should be invited.
“I rely on them to get me the information and then I start coordinating,” Brandes says. “That’s not always easy to do, however. When you think about how long out you have to plan to see your physician, imagine scheduling a meeting for a group of them.”
So they must plan far ahead.
“It’s not a good job for people who aren’t well organized,” Milford says.
A FUTURE IN MEDICAL MEETINGS?
So is medical meeting planning a good career track? Perhaps, especially for those who are interested in issues of science, personal care and medicine. But it’s not a broad industry, Brandes says.
“I would encourage you to get experience in the hospitality and meetings industry first,” she says, “before you go into any specialty meetings industry. It’s very helpful to understand the nuances of planning meetings before you get into the nuances of medical meetings. The truth is it’s not a big portion of the meetings industry.”
Milford says that once you do have a job in medical meetings, be prepared for the details.
“You need to know those guidelines and understand the perceptions around this industry,” Milford says. “It’s more than just about the budget.” MM&E
(By Michael Humphrey, Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)