After years of waiting, wondering and rule changes, the big day finally arrived on August 1, 2013, the effective date of the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, which mandates the reporting of payments or transfers of value between pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers and physicians.
But while some departments spent the first part of this year scurrying to collect data for the first reporting deadline on March 31, 2014, for a surprising number of medical meeting planners, it’s more or less business as usual. With overbooked schedules, record numbers of meetings to plan and new internal global strategy partnerships to lead, for many medical planners, compliance systems are handling the changes with relative ease as planners focus on increasing efficiency in other areas.
The advent of the Sunshine Act demonstrates a major shift in medical meeting planning that has been growing ever clearer in recent years: The role of meeting planners in this industry has shifted from pure execution to a key strategic, collaborative function within companies.
Even though a reporting process has been established, the principal task now, going through the first cycle, is to spot ways to increase efficiency in what, for many planners, is an incredibly time-consuming process.
“Something that will be very critical this year will be living through that first reporting cycle and trying to get your head around where there are opportunities to improve your process.”
— James Vachon, CMM
“Something that will be very critical this year will be living through that first reporting cycle and trying to get your head around where there are opportunities to improve your process,” advises James Vachon, CMM, associate director of events, meetings and conventions at Cambridge, MA-based Millennium Pharmaceuticals. “Has the system that you’ve set up been designed so that you actually have the information you need in the time frame that is required? And, more importantly, what types of questions or challenges are coming from the physicians that are having data reported on them? I find that there’s certainly been a lot of questions over whether physicians are really truly aware of what’s going on. A lot of companies I know ask mandatory questions like, ‘Do you acknowledge and accept that we will be reporting on this?’ It’s funny because no matter how much we tell them, sometimes people don’t read it. I think it will suddenly be a light bulb for physicians.”
Engaging physicians in the planning process is a key way that many meeting departments are staying on top of reporting, so this awareness is crucial to ease the success of implementation for pharmaceutical companies. “What I did last year, because I knew this was coming, was that when I sent out my information to physicians, I requested the information you don’t normally have and is hard to get after the fact. I was collecting it on the front end,” says Sandra Dewberry, CMP-HC, meeting services program manager at Greensboro, NC-based Merz North America Inc.
“I put on the registration that this information was required, and when I got it back I looked at every single one and made sure that they answered each question. I’ve probably done four meetings since the beginning of the year, and I required the information before we got onsite; they weren’t able to confirm or register until I had this information. There were no questions. They’ve all been very compliant. They all knew that this information was coming, and I think they have gotten a lot of education on it too, because they knew what we were talking about.”
Unfortunately, not all physicians have been prepared with the information at the right time, and Dewberry’s team has taken a hard-line stance to make sure their reporting is accurate. “When we have meetings, we invite certain people, and then we allow walk-ins, and they don’t always have that information available, so it can be challenging to get the information,” she says. “Last year, when we first started asking for the information, there might have been one or two times when walk-ins didn’t have it, and I had to say, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t admit you without this information.’ ”
Though efficient, not all planners are placing the burden of information-gathering on attending physicians. Some have created entirely new offices to handle the task. “We produce a lot of meetings, which creates quite a bit of data to report,” explains Jeannine Strampel, CMM, CMP-HC, associate director of meeting management services for Cambridge, MA-based Biogen Idec. “The reporting is a very big piece. All the information collection is completed upfront, and then it’s reviewed and audited. We go through constant auditing of the data to ensure accuracy. This puts a lot of strain on planners because of how time-consuming it is, so I actually have a separate staff now to do the reporting, and the planners complete the auditing as well as a separate audit team.
“We’ve had compliance in place previously. I’ve been here three years, and it was in place when I came. We’re always auditing our meetings, but we decided to assign the Sunshine Act reporting to a separate coordinator. That way the planners can stay focused on the outcome of the meeting, and the Sunshine coordinator can focus on all the details around Sunshine reporting. They work together as one team.”
However, not all planners have had systems in place well before Sunshine came along. “For a long time, you heard people from companies saying, ‘Well, we’re just going to wait and see,’ and in those situations, I’d be curious to see where they are,” says Vachon. “If you’re waiting until after the meeting to pull this together, you’ll be so far behind the ball.”
Dewberry agrees that she’s been seeing other planners take a less proactive approach to capturing Sunshine information that can have important repercussions down the line. “I’m seeing a really big crunching in getting this information and interpreting the template, figuring out exactly what information they need,” she says. “It’s like reading Latin, and a lot of people didn’t capture that information before, and now they’re doing catch-up.
“You can collect whatever information you can and go back to your office and go back to the database and try to find that person, but while there are national databases you can go to, the problem with that is that you have to make sure it’s the right physician and not someone with the same name,” she continues. “I don’t like that because you’re never sure it’s the right one, and this information is going to be posted publicly.” Under Sunshine Act rules, data from the 2013 reporting period will be made public September 30, 2014.
Across the board, though, the consensus is that once this initial rough period of implementation is over, the headaches of Sunshine reporting will fade for planners. “I see it going smoothly in the future, because now we know what we need to send, and I think that as time goes on, more and more physicians will bring this information with them,” forecasts Dewberry.
“It may not be as clear to people who are not tenured in the industry, not as experienced, but anyone who has been through transitions like this finds that it doesn’t take a significant amount of time before people buy in and develop expectations around those standards,” Vachon agrees.
Throughout the meeting planning industry, there has been much talk, at first tentatively, and now increasingly confidently, that things are finally rebounding after the shake-up of the recession, but the landscape has changed in key ways.
For medical meeting planners, post-recession caution goes beyond simple budgetary concerns. In fact, in most cases, planners are not finding themselves trying to do more with less. Rather, they are finding their meeting planning process shifting in a much more fundamental and basic way: meeting objectives.
“As the economy is turning, there’s more opportunity, but also more pressure on how and when we spend our dollars,” says Vachon. “It’s not like years ago. It used to be, if you had money at the end of the year, people would say, ‘We have extra money, so let’s spend it.’ I think the pressure is changing things more indirectly. I think now in order to be a good corporate citizen you have to bring strategy to the table. The meeting sponsors and stakeholders are more focused on the end result whether ROI or content development, and we have to really guide them.
“Instead of planning a series, you’re more apt to say, let’s do this one program and then make sure we can get all our goals, and if we can’t, what is the right mechanism to use for follow up — maybe it’s not a meeting. Maybe it’s a portal that becomes available for physicians with patient information resources, or a message that gets pushed out.”
Strampel, whose office has recently shifted from commercial operations to global strategy, completely agrees. “In the last three or four years, the change that I have seen, and this is specific to the industry, is that the meeting planning professionals have become more strategic,” she says. “I’m in the process of putting in place a strategic global meeting management program that we’ve been working on for a year. The role of the meeting planner is definitely changing to strategic partner.”
This shift has been codified with the recent introduction of the Certified Meeting Professional–Health Care (CMP-HC) designation by the Convention Industry Council (CIC). In November and December 2013, a beta exam was offered to individuals who hold the CMP destination, have three years of experience in health care meeting management and have completed 15 hours of professional development specifically related to health care meeting management.
So far, 54 CMPs have taken and passed the exam, but there is great demand for more planners to achieve this certification. “Many of my planners have their masters in project management and also have certifications in project management as well as their CMPs,” Strampel explains. “I truly believe that if I hire someone with a CMP-HC they understand the business, the strategy behind it, not just booking meetings, but also the partnerships we have with our vendors and stakeholders. They are extremely valuable to our meetings.”
The next CMP-HC exam will be issued in November 2014 and subsequently held annually in May and November. The application period for the upcoming November exam is May 14 to July 31, 2014.
In the medical meeting planning space, the shift in focus towards increased efficiency and strategic oversight trickles down from meeting planners’ jobs to the meetings they plan. “Early on, when the industry started being scrutinized and compliance became a large part, there were lots and lots of changes, but, now, mainly, I see meetings being more productive,” shares Dewberry. “Companies are only inviting the number of physicians that they need. Meetings are smaller and more productive. There are fewer people but they get more done.
“With fewer people…it’s just more concentrated and focused. I see longer sessions, working lunches and taking advantage of the breakfast, where they actually have meaningful conversations,” she explains. “In particular, lunch is not just lunch, it’s working lunch. We used to have a room for lunch and a room for the meeting, but now lunch is set up in the foyer, and they go out and get their lunch and come back to the meeting.”
Though the shift seems budgetary, like most recent changes in medical meeting planning, it flows from strategic concerns stemming from a closer examination of the needs of attendees. “I think the physicians love shorter meetings because they spend less time out of their practice,” Dewberry explains. “It’s really challenging when you ask them to come away for more than a few days. They like to fly in and out. I used to do advisory boards earlier on that were two or three days, but now there’s one full day of meetings and a travel day. They come in the night before and then they have their meeting and they’re out the next day or that evening.”
Strampel has found her meetings shifting to a similar focus on physician needs, and it also affects how she picks her destinations. “When we have physicians attend our meetings, we value their time and we don’t want them to travel far, in consideration of our time and their time,” she says. “We’re not picking Dallas because it has warm weather. We book Dallas because it has good airlift and non-stop flights. It’s pretty much an hour and a half for everybody to get there. We use a lot of airport hotels in most of our cities. They’re very convenient for our fly in, get to work and then fly out approach.”
For meetings with external stakeholders, face-to-face, in many ways, remains the norm, but digital meetings are on the rise, and not just for the reason you’d think. “Working in a global environment, you sometimes have to rely on the virtual component, you’re certainly not going to fly people in for a half-hour meeting,” says Vachon. “I think that virtual meetings are becoming more and more part of our everyday life, and people who are taking advantage of those use them for internal programs. It’s a combination of economy and ease.
“However, there are a lot of people who think that if we do this meeting virtually we won’t have any travel expense, but you’ll have a significantly higher tech expense,” he says. “You have to know where people are and what their capabilities are. But if you’re just looking from a budgetary standpoint, you might be missing the boat; what are the results, are they achievable virtually?
“If you develop your content appropriately, that should be able to happen,” Vachon explains. “Let’s say you’re having an investigator meeting, and there are components where the face-to-face time you have with investigators and study coordinators allows you to understand how they work and how their methods interact with what you’re trying to do, but maybe you could cut a day by providing protocol training with a virtual component. Maybe you’re not cutting down travel but cutting down the numbers of days. Then once you develop those online materials for that meeting, you don’t need to do it again for the next one. It’s more cost-effective.”
Whether it’s the economy, the Sunshine Act or another new regulation coming down the road next, medical meeting planners face more than their share of challenges, but continue to respond with strength due to intrinsic changes in their skill set.
“When you look at meeting planning, and I’ve been in it a long time, more than 20 years, it was always looked at as the fun group or a fun occupation to have,” says Strampel. “But now, because of the pharmaceutical industry and what we’ve done as a meeting planning industry — with the credentials we’ve earned and the certifications, meeting planning is viewed differently.
“The role of the meeting planner is absolutely changing, and we are definitely looked at as a partners with our stakeholders. They rely on us immensely for the strategy of the meeting. Five or six years ago it might not have been like that.” C&IT