When meeting a physician friend for lunch, Jerry Pettis, public relations advisor for the Los Angeles County Medical Association, noticed the tall stack of medical journals on the doctor's desk. When he asked his friend how he ever got around to reading that many journals, he replied that it was almost impossible. “If someone could help us solve that problem,” he told Pettis, “it would be like discovering a miracle drug.”

Intrigued, Pettis surveyed about 100 other doctors, who said the only “free” time they had was while driving to work. Pettis came up with an idea to help busy physicians keep up-to-date. He and a team of physician-editors read the medical journals, selected the most significant articles, and recorded abstracts of the articles on tape for physicians to listen to while driving. That was in 1952 when cars weren't even equipped with tape recorders. Nevertheless, the idea took off. Then, when portable tape recording equipment hit the market, Pettis' team began traveling to medical conferences and recording lectures, adding to their repertoire of products.

Audio-Digest Foundation, in Glendale, Calif., a nonprofit affiliate of the California Medical Association, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It now produces 336 audio-journals each year that offer Category 1 CME/CE credit. We asked Lon Osmond, vice president and executive editor; and Diana Durham, director of education and accreditation, why Audio-Digest is so successful, what their plans are for the future, and their perspective on CME trends.

On building relationships

Early on, we developed long-lasting relationships with teaching institutions across the country. That is still the reason we are allowed to record meetings around the country without paying royalties. We shine a light on those meetings, create more visibility for them.

[Our continuing success] comes back around to: How do physicians solve problems now? What are physicians' problems? And how can CME help solve them?

On giving back to the CME community

We keep subscriptions very affordable. As a foundation, part of our mission is to give back to the medical community and to ensure that there is always a venue for live CME meetings. Each year, we designate a portion of our earnings for educational grants to teaching institutions. We also have established endowment funds for CME. Over 50 years, we've contributed more than $14 million to medical education.

On CME on the Web

We have webcasts available now, but we're not convinced that physicians want to spend a lot of time online getting CME unless something changes in the way it is delivered. In 2001, we surveyed about 62,000 practicing physicians across the country about online CME. What we learned is that there isn't a viable market for it yet, in part because of the overall dissatisfaction with online CME content and the perception that information on the Internet should be free.

On CME on audio CDs

We began offering our programs on audio CDs in July. At this time, approximately 35 percent of our customer base opted to switch to CD; however new orders are coming in at approximately 45 percent. There's no doubt that CDs will overtake cassettes soon. The major automobile makers have told us that CD players will be standard in all cars in the next two years, and cassette players will be an expensive option. And one need only visit any music store and try to find a latest release on cassette to predict this.

On future formats

Right now, we decide what someone is going to hear. A one-hour program can be one lecture for an hour, or four or five lectures for 10 to 15 minutes each. MP3 [compression technology for audio files] would enable easy access to a library of audio information, searchable by topic. Participants could create their own CME activities, downloading what they need when they need it.

On the impact of 9/11

Now that there's a little more nervousness about traveling, what we've done for a couple of meeting sponsors is make recordings of unedited lectures available at an online tape store. This provides a mechanism for organizations to get education to those reluctant to travel long-distance to a meeting, and it also helps them recoup some of the financial losses that result from lackluster attendance.

On bioterrorism as a CME topic

We generally don't produce programs from scratch. We do when a need presents itself, as it did here. [Audio-Digest produced a program about bioterrorism that was sent to its 50,000 subscribers. It is also available free of charge as a webcast at www.audio-digest.org]. We've certainly seen responses from subscribers. Physicians want this information desperately.

On other hot topics

Whenever we do a program about better communication with patients, that “touchy-feely stuff,” there's a group of people who don't want to hear it, but we get the most flattering feedback. People say, “they didn't teach us that in medical school” — how to talk to people about domestic violence, how to really explore what's going on behind depression. When physicians can meet those needs, they get a positive response from patients.