Moving the "free" discussion to medical meetings

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The debate on "free" when it comes to whether or not to charge for repurposing conference content for the Web (for links to the posts that started it all, see What is the cost of free?) got me thinking about a similar discussion that's been raging in the industry my new job covers, medical meetings.

Everyone from the pharmaceutical industry and medical device organizations to congressional leaders to state legislators have been working to sort out the problematical relationship between healthcare provider education and the industry folks who shoulder most of the financial burden for providing that education.

The easy answer, at least for some people, is to cut the commercial support ties altogether and just have docs pay full freight for their continuing medical education. No ethical issues, no worries about commercial bias creeping in, no more marketing disguised as education, the argument goes.

But docs are decidedly unhappy with the idea, because it means they'd be paying a lot more for what used to be either reasonable or even free (sound familiar?). And education providers aren't happy, because they wouldn't be able to afford to put on all the education healthcare providers need to keep current these days. Those workshops on rare diseases? Gone, because the audience is too small to make it worthwhile. And the commercial supporters aren't happy, because they lose the opportunity to get in front of the docs. You should hear the resounding "no!" that echoes from almost every quarter every time the suggestion comes up.

Would HCPs be willing to pay out of pocket if the education truly was amazing? Maybe. Would some pretty lame CME finally bite the dust if people had to pay? Assuredly. Would there be a lot less variety of offerings? Probably. Would physician education, and patient health, suffer? Most likely.

Like the arguments over "free" in online content repurposed from meetings, the argument over "free" (in this case, aka commercially supported) education is far from over. I happen to think sponsorship is a good happy medium, as long as there are controls in place, which in CME there most assuredly are. Someone suggested in another discussion over on Facebook that we need to recondition people, whether HCPs or not, to accept the fact that we have to pay for what we get. Sounds simple, and it sounds right. But the reality is a lot more complicated.

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