LEST YOU THINK that the pharma industry is the only one to come under fire for its support of CME, check out “Food Makers Urge Doctors to Push Specific Brands,” which ran in The Wall Street Journal on May 25. The article says that major food companies are now copying pharmaceutical companies' marketing tactics — pitching their products' health benefits to physicians so that they will recommend their brands to patients. According to the article, companies are sending sales reps to doctors' offices, giving doctors samples for patients, and in a few cases rewarding doctors for recommending their products.

The good news for CME professionals and medical meeting planners is that the food industry represents a new source of funding at a time when some drug companies are cutting back on their support of physician education. (See “Feedback,” page 13.) For example, the WSJ article says that McNeil Nutritionals exhibited at 22 medical meetings last year and that the California Walnut Council has funded a curriculum for nurse practitioners about healthy fats. At the Alliance for CME annual conference in 2003, in a session about commercial support, several attendees said dairy and beef councils had given them grants.

The food industry isn't the only one interested in reaching doctors. As this issue's cover story reveals, Mexican CME company LiveMed's director of nonpharma sales persuaded automobile and cellphone companies, as well as cereal firms, to exhibit at its convention. And, Jennifer Goodwin reports in her marketing column on page 47 that Apple exhibited at the Drug Discovery Technology conference in August.

The bad news is that collaborating with these new supporters creates ethical issues similar to those in CME/pharma partnerships. Food companies, like drug firms, have a vested interest in affecting the content of programs. In fact, according to the WSJarticle, a doctor who made a presentation at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' annual meeting is a paid consultant for Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc.

You'll need to educate nontraditional supporters about CME guidelines regarding conflict of interest and evidence-based, balanced content; and inform speakers who have financial relationships with the food industry, for example, about the difference between promotional and educational programs. Doctors will need training in handling relationships with nonpharma sales reps. In fact, the American Medical Association's Ethical Opinion on Gifts to Physicians from Industry may need to be amended to include gifts from any type of industry seeking to influence physician recommendations to patients. Finally — as the WSJ article demonstrates — you risk drawing the same negative media and public attention when working with food companies as you do when partnering with the pharma industry.

Regardless of these obstacles, I think it's a positive step for the CME community to diversify its funding sources. Learn from LiveMed's example and consider training a staff person in how to solicit nontraditional funding and exhibitors. Brainstorm with your colleagues to generate ideas for new avenues of support. Additional revenue streams will increase your independence and broaden your options — which can help get you through these tough times in CME/pharma relations.