Pharma Fortbildungs-Forum: addressing challenges faced by pharmaceutical and event industries

I want to introduce a new topic on the blog that I haven’t touched upon extensively until now, despite it being a significant industry within the MICE sector. Only in Germany, it accounts for approximately 639 million Euros spent in 2018 for research, congresses and events and supporting services for advanced training and lectures (according to Transparenzkodex 2018). These events are subject to strict compliance regulations. 

This is the pharmaceutical industry. 

Before I share with you some insights from the Pharma Fortbildungs-Forum, which I attended on 4 December 2019 in Mainz, I wish to provide an introduction to the Pharma Codex, which is a guideline for pharmaceutical events. According to the definition on the Aids Conference 2018 website, ‘All interactions between European pharmaceutical companies and healthcare professionals are governed by EU Directive 2001/83/EC. This directive establishes a code of conduct that regulates the relationship between industry and healthcare professionals.’ The definition continues with a focus on the Dutch legislation, in conjunction with the AIDS congress that took place in 2018 in Amsterdam, ‘In the Netherlands, the EU regulations are applied by the Dutch Foundation for the Code of Pharmaceutical Advertising. It defines what is considered to be drug advertising and who can be exposed to drug promotion.’ 

Each county has its own code of conduct, and the organisers need to respect this code when it comes to advertising.

MICE destinations that are interested in attracting business from the medical sector must also comply with the regulations and provide a high level of transparency. For example, the Monaco Convention Bureau has a dedicated brochure entitled, ‘Monaco, a destination respectful of medical ethics.’ The information included in the brochure highlights the best timeframe for medical congresses to take place, which is ‘off season’ with a well-founded connection between the specific medical area and the local specialist fields, and the hotels guarantee not to give access to their leisure and sporting facilities to healthcare professionals attending an event. The brochure lists 2-4-star hotels in Monaco (whereas 5-star hotels are strictly forbidden) along with key statistics, facts and figures, faculties and testimonials of past medical congresses that took place in Monaco.

Pharma Fortbildungs-Forum

The 37th edition of the Pharma Fortbildungs-Forum took place at the Favorite Park Hotel Mainz. The full-day programme included sessions about the pharmaceutical industry’s public image, responsibilities of medical societies today and in the future, congress financing through the pharmaceutical industry and requirements for CME-certified events (Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education).

Below, I’d like to share with you some of the information I gained from the sessions. 

According to Helmut Laschet, journalist at the Ärzte Zeitung, the pharmaceutical industry is a highly complex international industry that consists of large corporations but also smaller players across a wide medical spectrum, and that includes medical specifications (e.g. prescription vs non-prescription drugs) and medical therapies. The industry faces a dilemma: most healthy people see this industry primarily as the cause of costs—what it costs and not what it serves—and apart from a minority of sick people, they don’t experience its benefits. In the past 10 to 15 years, there has been extensive research conducted that has been accepted by politicians, society and above all by doctors. 

Helmut Laschet highlighted the recognition of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries as the leading future-oriented high-tech industries alongside information technology. 

Therefore, it is necessary to see this industry not as a cost generator, but instead, acknowledge its value creation in terms of job creation and innovation. It was suggested by one of the participants that those people who work in the industry are convinced about the benefits it creates, not only as an economic driver and a force of innovation but also because people today live longer thanks to this industry.

The industry’s public image

Gerald Gebhardt from Faktenkontor GmbH presented information about ‘financing of doctor’s advanced education through the industry: curse or blessing.’

Is there a chance for positive public perception? Gerald Gebhardt suggested that ‘without the engagement of the pharmaceutical industry and financial support of the advanced training, the high level of public health service will suffer.’ Shouldn’t the public be proud of such training offered to doctors? What are the advantages and disadvantages of financing doctors’ advanced training through the pharmaceutical industry? 

The industry often has a negative perception when it comes to doctor training, particularly to what extent the training provided by pharmaceutical companies is neutral. The advantages of advanced medical training throughout the pharmaceutical industry have led to mutual exchange of know-how. It was countered by one participant that ‘when the pharmaceutical industry intervenes, it has a goal, and suggested that if the industry is interested in educating doctors, they should put the money in a neutral pot that is not directly financing a specific form of training (e.g., when a particular product is involved). Education must remain product neutral.’ But it was also noted that the companies want to know what they sponsor when it comes to advanced training of doctors; therefore, it is not necessary to put the money for training into a neutral pool. Pharmaceutical companies want the opportunity to showcase their products as well—why shouldn’t they know how the money is used?

Key factors of a successful image campaign 

To change image and perception, it is possible to run an image campaign. Gerald Gebhardt shared how to do so. He suggested that it is first necessary to focus people’s attention on the message, then let them know where to find more information. An image campaign should include the following aspects: credibility, relevance, commercial viability, continuity, surprise element and make people talk about it. 

The campaign should be on an eye level with the target audience, making it easy for them to understand. For example, do the data have a meaning to the receiver and what message do those data send. Data shared with doctors might not have the same relevance when shared with the general public. 

Someone from the audience asked, ‘Does the industry need an image campaign? After all, it has a good image already. Everyone who is over 60 and is healthy can be thankful to the pharmaceutical industry. The reality is better than it is.’

The future of medical congresses

The following discussion was about the areas of responsibility of medical societies today and in the future. It was a panel discussion between Maximilian Broglie, manager at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Innere Medizin e.V., David Friedrich-Schmidt, representative from Deutschen Gesellschaft für Neurologie e. V. and Dr. rer. med. Konstantinos Papoutsis, manager at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Kardiologie e.V., and it was moderated by Dr. Christina Buttler, Director Strategy & Innovation, MCI Deutschland GmbH. 

The discussion concerned how congresses are evolving. Content is no longer exclusive to congress attendees; in contrast, it should be available to access online. Event organisers shouldn’t be afraid to publish all content online, fearing that it will cannibalise event attendance. It was also suggested that new products appear particularly quickly on the market and questioned what can be done at congress to catch up with this rapid product development while maintaining high-quality content. When not all talks can be recorded, it was suggested to collaborate with other providers at the congress who can record the talks and publish on their own platforms. Recording the sessions has only now become more relevant. It was mentioned that the congresses that did this in the past felt that the demand wasn’t there yet, but now it’s back. Hence, congresses need to stay true to the time and know what people need, so young people don’t miss out on it.

One attendee shared an article, ‘Doctors are turning to YouTube to learn how to do surgical procedures, but there’s no quality control’, highlighting that content is no longer exclusive to events, but events have the opportunity to maintain high-quality control when it comes to content. 

Two success factors of medical events are: being cheap and easily accessible (e.g. via public transport). Only those who are sick will come. Congresses need to orient themselves towards future generations. Organisers should keep it simple with only one ticket type. Talking about digitalisation, panellists said that personal contact at the event is important, and there is no need to digitalise everything. Sustainability is also an urgent topic; organisers should reuse lanyards and can even wash them by themselves. They should print fewer programmes (only for a third of the participants), and attendees should be able to choose the brochures they need instead of pre-arranged goodie bags. When it comes to sustainability, the participants should lead the change.

Congresses today have other aims beyond knowledge sharing, but instead, exchanges between participants and side programmes (e.g. pre conference) are becoming more important for exchanging on a personal and professional level. 

At a medical congress, the exhibition should be separated from the academic programme, and participants should be able to choose by themselves whether they want to go through the commercial area. Venues used for medical events should have two separate entrances for this purpose. 

What will be the future of associations and congresses? Panellists offered that members will be connected through ‘working groups’ where specific topics will be addressed. The members will drive the change by requesting new formats and digital content, so the right content online should be able to reach the right audience—it will not be a ‘one-fits-all approach.’ And lastly, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was mentioned, noting that it stops associations from making progress, such as with digital tools. It costs time, money and energy. 

To conclude this session, it was stated that online education will increase, but meetings and events will remain—emotions don’t have an online replacement. Pure education will move online. 

Independent opinion doesn’t exist but requires transparency

The next session was about ‘congress financing through industry: fact check and a look behind the scenes’. The panel discussion was with Dr. Holger Diener, manager at Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle für die Arzneimittelindustrie e.V., Dr. Martin Fedder, manager at content4med and Edith Zanter, Compliance Officer, Takeda Pharma Vertrieb GmbH & Co. KG.

It was discussed that congresses can’t take place without the industry and that both go hand in hand. Therefore, there is a need for transparency and what the money is spent on. If there is no platform for the pharmaceutical company to be seen, they can’t justify the sponsoring and marketing spend of the congress (as previously suggested, the money should be put into a neutral pot).

As a solution, it was recommended for the pharmaceutical companies to sponsor events that have close links to the business area and expertise of the congress. There must be a place where doctors can speak neutrally, and as long as there is innovation, there will be advanced education.

If organisers forbid sponsorship, they will lose part of the audience. Therefore, they instead need to identify where the problem is. Examining the usage of the products by doctors, they are used both by sponsored activities and not. Ultimately, the doctors will decide with their feet. All that is required is full transparency and that all information is on the table—what is sponsored and what is not. Additionally, the advertising law in Germany ‘Werbe Gesetz’ regulates all marketing activity.

To conclude, there is a requirement for an advanced education programme that people trust. Independent opinion doesn’t exist; therefore, transparency is necessary. Organisers should constantly evaluate their event programmes, always receive new data from attendees and ask the delegates where they feel influenced by the industry. 

Pictured: Gerald Gebhardt, Senior Consultant, Faktenkontor GmbH

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