The U.S. Senate Committee on Finance dropped a bombshell on the continuing medical education community last week when it released a report saying that some purportedly independent educational programs are, in reality, veiled advertising vehicles for the pharmaceutical industry. While pharmaceutical companies’programs are regulated by the government, the CME industry has so far escaped government oversight, regulating itself through standards and guidelines developed by the Accreditation Council for CME. But this report raises the specter of increased government scrutiny and possible intervention. At the very least, it should serve as a wake-up call to CME and medical meeting professionals that big changes lie ahead.
The CME community relies heavily on pharmaceutical industry funding to support education programs, including meetings. In 2005, the drug industry expended more than $1 billion on CME grants. While the report commends pharmaceutical companies for taking steps in recent years to separate their medical education funding and marketing efforts, the process still isn't clean enough, SFC Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said in a press release that accompanied the report.
The release also stated that the Accreditation Council for CME's oversight is insufficient to guarantee that programs are independent of drug-company influence. Theis the independent body that accredits organizations to provide education for physicians. The report cited ACCME's own data to back up its points, noting that 24 percent of the providers reviewed by ACCME in 2005 and 2006 for compliance with the revised Standards for Commercial Support did not comply with at least one of the guidelines, which are meant to ensure independence. The report also highlighted that ACCME relies on CME providers’ self-reported data, and does not conduct its own investigation of programs.
The next step, says the press release, is for the committee to follow up on these findings with participating drug companies and organizations that promulgate guidelines for medical education grants, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Office of Inspector General, and the Accreditation Council for CME.
The report, and any follow-up actions taken by the committee, could have huge implications for the CME industry. It's likely that the ACCME will have to strengthen its requirements and oversight of CME organizations, say CME experts. Should the ACCME fail to convince the Senate Finance Committee that it is capable of ensuring CME's independence, government agencies could take on a bigger role in overseeing CME. It's important to remember, however, that this is a staff report, not a recommendation for congressional hearings or new legislation.
The Senate Finance Committee probe began in June 2005 when the committee wrote to 23 of the largest pharmaceutical companies inquiring about their educational grants processes. Later, the committee also sent questions to the ACCME.
For further analysis and developments, watch for upcoming issues ofmagazine.
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(The full Finance Committee report is online here).