Numbers Tell All What's hot in the medical conference industry Some lure physicians with celebrity autograph signings, some with CME, but however they do it, most pharmaceutical firms are spending more money than ever on meetings and events, according to newly released results (see accompanying chart) of the Physician Meeting and Event Audit (PMEA), operated by Scott-Levin, a unit of Research Triangle Park, N.C.-based Quintiles Transnational Corp.

The number of industry-sponsored meetings and events reached 280,000 in 1999, up from 70,000 in 1993, when the PMEA was inaugurated. Much of that growth is recent. Between 1998 and 1999, the number of events held for physicians jumped 25 percent. Nearly half (45 percent) of these events were "dine 'n' dash" dinner meetings, where physicians are invited to a restaurant for a meal and a discussion of a pharmaceutical company's new product. Only 18 percent were hotel-based meetings - although physicians are far more likely to accept hotel invitations than restaurant invitations.

"These numbers fit with my experience," says Richard F. Tischler Jr., PhD, president of RF Tischler Jr. & Associates Inc., Mt. Airy, Md., a CME consulting practice. "My clients are not only expanding the number of companies they work with, but the business for each of those companies is really growing."

Why the surge in activity? Some of it can be put down to a busy season of new product introductions. For example, the fastest-growing events budget in the first half of 2000 compared to a year ago is that of Glaxo Wellcome, which has two new products to promote, one an inhalable flu medicine, the other to relieve irritable bowel syndrome. As is often the case with new therapies, promotion involves first building awareness among physicians of the problem the new drug solves - for example, irritable bowel syndrome - and then promoting the drug as the solution to the problem.

It is at the awareness-building stage that pharmaceutical firms may turn to CME providers to help get information out about the condition. Yet offering CME is no sure thing in terms of physician acceptance. Physicians were slightly more likely to accept invitations to non-CME events (51 percent) than CME meetings (44 percent). The study suggests that this may be due in part to physicians' ability to obtain CME from many sources other than pharmaceutical company - sponsored/supported events.

Tischler points out that physicians targeted for these kinds of meetings are likely to be the same ones who already have easy access to CME, but that there remains a population of physicians in rural areas, for example, that are underserved in terms of both access to CME and invitations to pharmaceutical company meetings.

Another possible reason for the upsurge in meeting and event activity may be the convergence of increased pharmaceutical rep staffing with the increasing inaccessibility of physicians while on the job, according to Lori Sterbakov, associate product manager for Scott-Levin. "Many HMOs and hospitals won't let reps into the office anymore," she says.

Medical conference organizers can take heart in the fact that spending on meetings and events is up. Many CME providers have worried in recent years that pharmaceutical company direct-to-consumer advertising budgets would swell and crowd out meetings budgets. It seems, according to the study, that they were half-right: Direct-to-consumer advertising is still growing, but meetings budgets are growing, too.

To learn more about the PMEA and Scott-Levin, contact Lori Sterbakov at lori.sterbakov@scottlevin.com.

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