by Michael J. Shapiro | April 01, 2017

On the surface, health-care professionals (HCPs) don't seem like overly demanding attendees. Recent research finds that they most commonly attend meetings to learn about the latest scientific findings, meet with experts and hear about products -- fairly straightforward and common motives. But according to the same study, nearly four out of every 10 HCPs have not had positive experiences at many of these meetings.

That's a sizable, disheartening number for medical meeting planners. The study, commissioned by Ashfield Commercial & Medical Services, a U.K.- and U.S.-based provider of communications, research, and sales and marketing services to pharmaceutical manufacturers, proved eye-opening.

Katie Koziol
Ashfield Meetings & Events US

"When we saw that feedback, we just said, 'wow,'" recalls Katie Koziol, director of client services for Ashfield Meetings & Events US, a division of the firm that commissioned the study. "Forty percent? That's really high, and it's really upsetting."

Some experts believe the research is indicative of an industrywide trend, and they're concerned that attendee needs are playing second fiddle to exceedingly complex compliance efforts.

"We've kind of forgotten about the HCP experience," cautions Patricia Schaumann, CMP, HMCC (for health-care meeting compliance certificate, administered by Meeting Professionals International), senior director of health-care compliance for Maritz Travel in Fenton, Mo.

Schaumann is the author of Breaking the Code to Healthcare Compliance, considered the de facto industry resource on the subject, and the founder of the HMCC program, which has to date certified about 1,100 planners. She understands well the potential for getting swept away by the morass of international laws, codes and guidelines. "But we need to pay better attention to what HCPs want," she notes. "We must make them more a part of the process."

Medical complications
Compliance issues don't just distract medical planners from focusing on the HCP experience, they can severely restrict that experience. Given that doctors are VIP attendees, how can you convey that status given the strict limits on spending imposed by regulations?

"We talk about this quite a bit, and we say that it's our duty to bridge that gap," says Ashfield's Koziol. "There is that gap between what we are allowed to do in a regulated environment and accomplishing our job of ensuring the best attendee experience possible. From the HCP perspective, they're seeing medical meetings with a lot of limited meal options, some restrictions on flying -- maybe they can't travel on their preferred airlines. Everything is more regulated -- a lot more regulated, in some cases -- than what they have experienced in the past." Pharma companies have seriously beefed up compliance measures based on the reporting requirements of the Affordable Care Act, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, and much more around the globe.

It isn't only the experiences of past years to which HCPs compare current meetings -- parameters can be quite different from meeting to meeting. "Certain pharma companies have different interpretations of compliance," Koziol says. "So, depending on whose meeting you're going to, you may have a slightly different experience in the level of hotel, the quality of the meal, the location of the meeting. While compliance acts as a kind of band across the industry, there is a differentiation across that band, depending on which pharma meeting you're going to."

Unfortunately, there's not much medical meeting planners can do about the parameters they're given. "And it's not going to change significantly," says Koziol. "So we look at what we can do that doesn't have a significant cost and can't be interpreted in a negative way."