What are the biggest challenges facing pharmaceutical meeting planners today? Polled via an audience-response system during the opening of the Second Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Planners Forum, held March 20 to 21 in Philadelphia, most attendees selected shrinking lead times as their top concern, followed by dealing with procurement, decreasing budgets, and complying with regulations. Demonstrating their value to management also was high on the list. As one person remarked, “At our company, everyone thinks they're a meeting planner.”

Co-produced by Medical Meetings magazine and the Center for Business Intelligence, with American Express as the exclusive presenting co-sponsor, the conference attracted more than 800 delegates and 100 sponsors and exhibitors.

During the forum, participants learned strategies for combating each of the challenges they identified. At a thought leaders panel, panelist Joann Kerns, associate director, global meeting management with Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Plainsboro, N.J., said of the short-lead-time issue, “We're our own worst enemy because we continue to do [our jobs] in less and less time.” Her fellow panelist, Mary Davar, MBA, CMM, CMP, account manager, medical meetings, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, Collegeville, Pa., said, “I've come to realize that stakeholders don't always understand how much time is needed to professionally plan meetings, that there's more involved than making a phone call.”

But there are ways to make the point — especially about how much more these short-term meetings can cost. Davar suggested using airfare as one example: “Show them the cost of airfare two weeks out as opposed to 30 days out.” Kerns added, “Let people know that we can end up paying rush charges.” Meeting planners will always have to contend with short lead times for product launches, because it's critical for the company to get the drug on the market as fast as possible, even if it means spending more. “But for other types of meetings, we just need to show what these short lead times are costing,” said Kerns.

Future Focus

The panelists also predicted that the challenges attendees identified at the meeting's start — including meeting consolidation and cost-cutting, decreasing budgets, and the need to prove their value — were likely to continue for the near future. But does this mean that meetings will likely become commoditized, as travel has already become? The panelists agreed that the shifts toward cost-containment and procurement do indicate a commoditization of meetings, but they didn't think it would go as far as it has with travel. “We have to embrace the technologies and the tools, but not lose the relationships,” said Kerns.

“How can we work with supplier partners to make sure the process is efficient and compliant? How do we do more with less? How do we train our staff? How do we work with our stakeholders? These are the questions we'll be facing in the future,” summed up panel moderator Shimon Avish, PhD, director of professional services, corporate meeting solutions with American Express Business Travel, Skillman, N.J.

Stop Pharma-Bashing

Another challenge facing pharma planners and the entire drug industry is its poor public image. Michael Pucci, vice president of external advocacy with GlaxoSmithKline, Research Triangle Park, N.C., had audience members nodding their heads in agreement during his keynote address on repairing the pharmaceutical industry's reputation. He pointed out that pharma has a positive side that's seldom mentioned in the media. “Yesterday's miracle drugs are financing the next generation of miracle cures,” he said, citing developments in the works such as a vaccine for cervical cancer, medications that could reverse the process of plaque formation on the brain, and genetically targeted therapies. “There are reasons to be excited [about participating in] this industry,” he said. “Yet the storm rages on about costs.”

He pointed out that prescription spending is just 10.7 percent of the total cost of healthcare in the United States. “It's the smallest component of the total healthcare dollar,” he said. Increasing demand for drugs drives up prescription costs: More patients are using more medications — which has positive ramifications for the public's health. It's also important to weigh the cost versus the value of medicine. When you break down the monthly cost of, say, statins, he said, “it's cheaper than a cup of coffee at Starbucks” to take a medication that will help you avoid a heart attack.

Instead of lamenting when he was told that a full 23 percent of one organization's healthcare-related costs were related to multiple sclerosis medications, Pucci said, “Isn't it great that these people now can be working instead of [the employer] paying disability, plus the full salary of someone to replace them?”

He also pointed out that chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which account for seven out of 10 deaths and 75 percent of healthcare costs, are what drive spending increases — not rising drug prices. Also, he said, “As we see costs shifting to patients, compliance with good treatment guidelines goes down, and the likelihood of these patients ending up in the emergency room increases.”

However, health initiatives can reverse that trend. Pucci outlined a program in Asheville, N.C., to educate diabetes patients and eliminate co-pays. The pharmacist worked with patients to find which medications worked best for them. In the first year, insurance spending decreased 40 percent, despite a tripling in prescription drug spending. It also achieved a reduction in hospital stays and sick days. “Maybe increasing drug use for these diseases has a better result, both for the patient and for the payer,” he said.

As for the 45 million to 50 million people who lack drug benefits, the pharmaceutical industry has patient-assistance programs to provide free medications to people who make $25,000 or less per year, he said. “Eighty-five percent of our business is already discounted” for medicines for Medicare, the military, and other government programs, he said. But, he added, “The $4 billion we spend on these programs is only about 2 percent of sales. We can do more.”

Pucci also suggested that meeting professionals could help shore up the reputation of the industry by using business hotels, rather than luxury venues, and using signage that says the purpose of the meeting rather than the company name. Other suggestions: Instead of organizing attendee recreational activities, present a check to the local free clinic, or plan a community service project. “Show that we care and that we listen to the issues people are facing.”

More coverage begins on page 26.