The World of Medical Meetings: Data, Perception, and Regulation

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By Kaitlyn Wallace

As we all know, industries everywhere are under enormous strain from the current COVID-19 pandemic. The meetings and events industry, hotels, caterers, and other suppliers have been hit particularly hard. So, too, has the medical industry been under enormous strain. The failure of modern pharmaceuticals to treat and cure COVID-19 has been well-reported; so too have shortages of essential medical equipment been well-publicized. In this time of need, we are reflecting on all aspects of pharmaceutical and medical device development. And though most meetings and events currently unadvisable and/or prohibited in many places in order to enforce social distancing and slow the spread of COVID-19, we would like to offer what little expertise we can on the interface of these two industries in the hope that when the pandemic eventually slows, our industries can work together in order to better assist and facilitate pharmaceutical and medical device development so that this pandemic, as well as future health crises, may be addressed as effectively as possible. In this vein, we offer a medical meeting 101: How are medical meetings different from corporate meetings? And how can those differences be best addressed in order to provide the most effective interface between meeting and event and pharmaceutical and medical device industries?

The meeting and event industry has always had a wide variety of sub-industries requiring separate expertise, but the medical and life science sub-industry in particular has required a quick and wide expansion of expertise by meeting planners. Due to increased scrutiny by both public and private institutions, the medical meeting industry has become one of the most complex areas of government- and self-regulation, requiring an unusual breadth of knowledge from meeting planners in the industry. But what exactly is it that makes the medical meetings and events industry so complex?

Government Regulation

The largest difference between corporate and medical meetings is regulation. Though it is common for many industries to have as some self-imposed regulation, due to the ethically loaded nature of the relationships between pharmaceutical companies, doctors, insurance, and medical device companies, governments around the world have turned a sharp eye to medical meetings and events– the nature of which, they worry, could influence doctor’s prescribing practices as well as general standard of care.

These regulations most notably include HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and the Sunshine Act in the United States, which regulate privacy and “transfers of value” between physicians and companies, respectively. This kind of regulation is highly international; as Pat Schaumann, author of Breaking the Code to Healthcare Compliance and president of Schaumann Consulting Group LLC., explains, “88 countries have their own set of regulations, laws, or mandates… Many countries and some states have specific regulations regarding F&B caps and types of venues used for medical meetings.”

Data Collection

Another important distinction between medical and corporate meetings is data collection. In the United States, transfers of value above $10 granted to any health care provider (HCP) must be reported and entered into the public Open Payments database. When taking into account travel costs, food and beverage, and even refreshments (and add-ons such as taxes and gratuity), as well as the fact that HCPs may be traveling from home states with vastly different reporting requirements, data collection can quickly become a nightmare for meeting planners. In order to fully service sponsoring organizations, meeting planners must get creative, implementing plans such as opt-in/opt-out forms for attendees, gathering data in real time by enlisting on-site staff to check in attendees at every point of transfer of value, and by offering attendees, suppliers, and sponsoring organizations an overview of all reportable costs upfront. Detailed and accurate records are essential in order to avoid the fines and reputation damage that are on the line in this industry.

Perception

The high degree of scrutiny that attendees fall under, due to the Open Payments database, is another significant difference in the medical meeting industry. When conferences include luxurious “transfers of value,” such as high-priced meals and destination hotels, attending doctors run the risk of being perceived as being “bought” by sponsoring companies, especially when the sponsor is a pharmaceutical or medical device company. This means that even if every transfer of value within a conference is ethically sound, costs must still be rigorously minimized in order to minimize the reportable transactions on an attending HCP’s public record. It is also necessary to forgo certain luxuries that may be available to other industries (such as five-star hotels, destinations associated with the beach or with skiing, etc.) in order to draw in attendees– counterintuitive to many other industries. It is not uncommon for doctors to be dissuaded from attending a conference or event if it includes huge transfers of value, which, when made public, might be a threat to their reputation and their business. It also means that concrete benefits– particularly, education– should be played up as much as possible in order to emphasize bettering, rather than hindering, good practice by attending physicians.

Medical meetings sometimes solve this issue by increasing feedback and attendee choice from the beginning by an opt-in/opt-out program for meals, transportation, and other expenses, allowing doctors to attend while controlling their degree of value transfer from sponsoring companies which is available on public record. Logistically, this option requires a high degree of control on the part of meeting planners in order to coordinate HCP choices with on-site staff, and may require additional technology such as scannable badges, which can display and track which transfers of value attending HCPs are participating in. These options increase the complexity of the already complicated world of medical meeting planning.

Self-Regulation

Additionally, the high degree of variability in self-regulation from sponsoring organizations sets medical meetings apart from corporate meetings. For a variety of reasons, including increasing HCP attendance, appearing and acting as a stringently ethical sponsor, and ensuring compliance, sponsoring organizations often have stringent self-regulatory cost requirements. Megan Juffer, CMP, HMCC, of Impact Meetings LLC, explained that “additional self-regulation of sponsoring organizations is common. Typically, an organization’s regulatory department will issue a corporate compliance policy which details general business rules and monetary spend limits for interactions with healthcare professionals (HCPs).”

Coordination and communication with sponsoring organizations is essential, as each organization will have different requirements which need to be integrated into your data collection protocols as well as taken into consideration when contacting suppliers and facilities for pricing models. As Megan continued: “the number-one area where companies have flexibility to self-regulate is meal caps; typically for U.S.-based meetings, companies will set stricter meal caps than what is considered ‘modest’ or ‘reasonable,’ which is the current U.S. regulation. This can be difficult to accommodate in first-tier cities, especially when the cost of F&B can rise anywhere from 1 to 10% in any given year.”

All of these complicating factors make continuing partnerships with suppliers and facilities with experience in the medical meetings industry highly desirable; it may be more common in this field to build relationships with niche suppliers and facilities in order to simplify and streamline an incredibly complex process while fulfilling the equally complex and wide-ranging needs of your client.

Medical Meetings: A Beast of Their Own

Medical meetings might sound like just another sub-industry culture to some. But those with experience in the field know that the medical meeting industry is unlike any other; it is constrained by government regulations, often counter-intuitive in its marketing and perception, requires balancing increasingly complex needs of attendees, sponsors, suppliers and facilities, and calls for an expanded skillset from the modern meeting planner, all while producing a high-quality meeting or event for all parties. As Megan Juffer reminds us, “With so much at stake and millions of dollars on the line, medical meeting planners have to be cognizant of how to properly record interactions, identify and capture metrics, maximize cost savings, mitigate risk, and provide an excellent attendee experience in order to achieve the goals of the meeting.”

Kaitlyn Wallace is a contributing writer from St. Louis.