I Recently Attended the American Heart Association annual meeting in Dallas. It was an impressive event — more than 27,000 attendees took over most of the city for five full days. The exhibit hall was inspirational, with pharmaceutical companies taking booths sized 40-feet-by-40-feet or bigger. These exhibit spaces had elaborate designs; some had expansive lounges and cyber cafes, and others had multimedia presentations flashing on sleek flat-screen displays. Some companies offered cappuccinos, drawn from professional copper and brass machines and attended by young, sprightly baristas. I saw patients with a whole range of cardiac disorders calmly lying on tables to demonstrate the latest technologies in echocardiogram machinery. But, as a medical meeting planner, one thing really jumped out at me.

Just across the aisle from the large booths, or perhaps partitioned off in one corner (with high walls to separate them) were mini-booths from those same giant pharmaceutical companies. These booths were discreet. There were no flashy flat-screen presentations. The considerably less bubbly staff were wearing lab coats. No cappuccino machines were to be found. In fact, the only furnishings were a desk and two chairs. Not even a plant! In conservative lettering at the top of the booths, there were just three words: Medical Information Desk.

Answering Off-Label Queries

This new trend seems to result from the government's increased scrutiny of how pharma companies communicate off-label information to physicians. There are many gray areas concerning off-label discussion. Basically, pharma companies are not allowed to promote off-label or unapproved uses of drugs and devices, but they can, under certain circumstances, respond to unsolicited requests for information from healthcare professionals. While the FDA updated its off-label communication guidelines in April 2005, those regulations only address how written information may be disseminated, explains Jane Chin, PhD, president, Medical Science Liaison Institute, and managing partner, MSL International Enterprises, Redondo Beach, Calif. The FDA doesn't address how to disseminate verbal information or how companies should coordinate their conference booths. By having two booths, companies physically separate promotion from scientific exchange. So if a doctor comes into a marketing booth with a question involving off-label use of a drug, the exhibit staff can direct the doctor to the medical information desk, which is staffed by medical affairs personnel.

Promote New Exhibitor Packages

Savvy planners can latch on to this trend to create new exhibitor packages and floor plans to accommodate pharmaceutical companies' unique needs. For example, you can entice an exhibitor to take a larger marketing booth by offering a free or discounted medical information booth in a nearby location. Let exhibitors know that those who choose early will have more flexibility about where they place their medical information desk.

You may want to plan a “Medical Information” section of your exhibit hall index and explain to companies that you did this to help them segregate marketing from education. The furniture packages offered might be different. Keep offerings in the medical information booths simple, classic, and conservative. Save the fancy cappuccino machines for the marketing exhibitors.

Demonstrate to your customers that you can help them manage the regulatory restrictions, and they will view you as a more valuable partner.

Jennifer Goodwin is president of The Goodwin Group, a global medical communications agency in Arlington, Mass. Reach her at goodwingroup@comcast.net.