Unless you've got some time, don't even think of suggesting to Kevin A. Wohlfort that exhibitions aren't something a medical specialty association needs to worry about. Wolfort, director, development, industry relations, and exhibits with the American Urological Association, Baltimore, Md., is a staunch advocate for developing more productive working relationships between industry and specialty societies.
We sat down with Wohlfort during a rare quiet moment at the Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association in Toronto in June. An innocent question about the dearth of medical specialty society professionals at the meeting — only 30 or so of the close-to-600 attendees — was all it took to get him off and running.
Q: Why are there so few associations at this meeting?
A: It may be the cost, or the time away from the office. I hope it's not the case, but it also could be that some associations still take their exhibitors for granted. That would be a shame. Industry is such a huge force in the healthcare arena; they should be viewed in a similar light as the doctors and everyone else playing in that arena.
My staff and I were just talking with a pharmaceutical company person about her interpretation of the new PhRMA code. I have read it, but until I have a chance to talk with her and my other contacts out in the field, it's just paper. We need to know how industry is interpreting those guidelines. What happens when a company violates them? How are they enforcing them? Since they're voluntary, who's the judge and jury, what's the court of action?. I've spoken with many of my key contacts and the answer from every one of them was that they are taking the guidelines very seriously.
Industry also needs to see that we are concerned about the challenges they're facing. You never want to jeopardize your independence or your organization's integrity — no grant is worth that. But knowing what they're facing and thinking is so important. I think HCEA is the perfect forum for that. [Editor's note: in the interest of full disclosure, Wohlfort was recently elected to HCEA's board of directors.)
Q: You talk about having a for-profit mentality in a non-profit world. How does that play out at AUA?
A: We want to know about exhibitors' challenges so we can make it easier for them, not in a regulatory sense, but in a good old-fashioned customer service sense. Are their costs too high with certain vendors? How can we help make their booth setup more efficient? They know we're putting in the time and investment now to help them, so if more funding for educational products does come out of the new code, I want to feel confident that AUA is in line to get that funding for our startup projects.
Some associations think that industry has to come to their meeting because of the fit between their therapeutic area and the companies' drug lines. My staff and I don't look at it that way. If these exhibitors are to be retained, they need to be serviced. Exhibits aren't just places to get a bag or a trinket; they are places where attendees learn about the newest approved indications for drugs as well as the new techniques and surgical devices. They're an important part of the educational process.
Q: What other ways do you service them?
A: We have an exhibit advisory committee and an industry committee. We talk with industry members about the strategic directions urology and the AUA is taking, and we ask them what's going on in urological medicine. It's a good, clean information exchange.
Q: How do you walk the line between developing good relationships and the potential for conflict of interest?
A: It's all about the communication process. I could avoid my industry contacts when new rules come out, or I could call them and say, “Did you see the latestguidelines? I'll send you a copy, and be prepared to talk about them at our next industry committee meeting.” Just because you get to know someone on a personal level doesn't mean you're going to let them get away with anything. It's about mutual respect and understanding of what position each party is coming from.
Healthcare is one of the most regulated industries we have, which gives us all the more reason to have that open communication instead of hiding behind the rules and making industry interpret them for themselves.