There are many gray areas when it comes to applying the Accreditation Council for CME's updated Standards for Commercial Support to meeting planning. That was the focus of the closed-door industry exchange for medical education and communication company professionals at the Second Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum, where the three panelists presented hypothetical case studies to generate discussion about the role of meeting planners in managing conflicts of interest in certified CME activities. The cases were prepared by Jacqueline Parochka, EdD, president, Excellence in Continuing Education, Gurnee, Ill., who served as one of the panelists.

In the first case, a meeting manager at a medical education communication company is put in a difficult position when the head of the commercial supporter's regional office asks for 50 copies of the syllabi after the program. Speaker Michelle Bartolone, CMP, CEO, Meeting Sites Pro/CME Pro, San Diego, said she would give the pharma rep one copy of the syllabus, but Parochka disagreed, saying that the accredited provider should make the decisions about how the syllabi are distributed and that the request violated Standard 1, which concerns CME activities' independence. “There are no black-and-white answers,” observed moderator Karen Overstreet, EdD, RPh, president, Indicia Medical Education, North Wales, Pa. “The Standards for Commercial Support do not address this level of detail.”

In another case, a physician brings her spouse to a dinner meeting. When the meeting planner tells her the event is for physicians only and spouses are not allowed to attend, the doctor creates a commotion that prompts the local sales rep to offer to pay for the spouse's meal. While the Standards for Commercial Support do not specifically prohibit bringing spouses to educational activities, the PhRMA code does forbid it. Further, according to the Standards, commercial supporters are not supposed to pay for anything directly — all money goes into a grant given to the accredited provider, pointed out Overstreet.

A pharma rep tries to cross the line again in the third case when he finds out that there are four competing breakfast symposia scheduled at the same time as the one his company funded — all them taking place during a major association meeting. Bypassing the meeting planner, the rep calls the hotel and upgrades the food and beverage order to include bloody marys, mimosas, and eggs Benedict. One of the attendees had dealt with a similar situation and now informs the venue in writing who is authorized to make changes. That way the onus is on the venue and the meeting planner doesn't have to get into a sparring match with the pharma rep, she said. “If the venue doesn't like it, they can eat the charges.”

The marketing plan for a satellite symposium was the problem area in another hypothetical case, where a university used the commercial supporter's product colors as a branding tool in brochures, slides, handouts, and other meeting materials. Providers should not use product colors, said Overstreet, because it blurs the line between promotion and education and looks like the supporter is influencing the activity. In addition, Standard 5.1 says that CME activity materials cannot promote the commercial supporter's business interests. One attendee said when she had inadvertently used product colors to market an activity, “the funder went ballistic.” You have to look at product colors to make sure you're not using them, she advised. Another attendee observed that pharma companies are becoming much more active in policing vendors' meeting materials. If you're not comfortable with a commercial supporter's request to review your materials, give them directly to the company's compliance officer, Overstreet suggested.

With compliance issues taking center stage, meeting professionals at MECCs — like their counterparts in pharma and independent planning companies — need to take a more strategic role in their organizations, speakers and attendees said. For instance, meeting organizers should be more involved in the initial planning sessions for CME activities, said Overstreet. An audience member agreed, adding that meeting planners are not yet seen as an integral part of the CME process. “We need to educate our organizations,” she said.