Defending pharma-funded CME. Nice try

M/C Holding CEO Frank Britt does his best to defend Continuing Medical Education (CME) that’s sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry. Responding to a recent Boston Globe article (For physicians, another option on education) about a new CME company that aims for independence from industry influence, Britt argues in a letter that rigorous standards ensure that industry-funded CME programs produced by companies like his are unbiased. Further, he points to evidence that indicates that CME is good for physicians and patients.

Over the last three years, 45 percent of US primary care physicians have participated in an [M/C Holding] offering. They do so year after year because it meets their clinical and education needs with full and complete disclosure of funding for them to discern and evaluate.

Britt is walking a fine line here. CME used to report into the marketing function at pharmaceutical companies and those companies participated actively in developing and reviewing the courses. Thanks to reforms, that’s no longer the case.

What, then is the motivation for pharmaceutical companies to continue sponsoring CME? A lot of companies agree with Britt and have cut off funding as a result.

But clearly those companies that still provide funding hope to gain a return on their investment. It could be as simple as gratitude from physicians for providing the sponsorships, but I doubt it.  In reality they are probably still hoping to influence physicians to prescribe their drugs. This can be done by the choice of topic, a bias toward presenting cases where drugs are used, and other subtle techniques. Companies like M/C know where their bread is buttered even if there’s little direct client influence on courses.

Britt chose his words carefully when he said doctors can “discern and evaluate” the funding behind these courses. In my experience few physicians can do so effectively. If they did, more physicians would likely obtain their CME elsewhere.

September 21, 2010

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