The phrase “if you build it, they will come” has become part of popular vernacular. Pharmaceutical and medical event planners, associations and exhibitors had their own version: “If you give something away, the doctors will come.” That all changed when the revised, and more restrictive, PhRMA and AdvaMed codes of ethics went into effect last year. The question now is: “If you don’t give something away, will they still come?”
“The situation had gotten way out of control, where it was looking like doctors were taking kickbacks for prescribing certain drugs or making referrals,” says Jennifer Landrum Elliott, a member of Stites & Harbison, a Louisville, Ky.-based law firm. “There was a sense that if you are a pharmaceutical company, for instance, and spent lots of money on dinners for doctors or free pens or stethoscopes, you would have one-on-one time to talk about your product to, essentially, a captive audience. And you can’t blame them for that. Doctors, for their part, started to feel entitled to these freebies because it was the lay of the land for so long.”
As early as 2002, the pharmaceutical industry had drafted a voluntary code of conduct on how companies should interact with physicians, both in office visits and at conventions. In 2009, the code was formalized, but still voluntary.
“It was very smart of the industry [because] the health care field was becoming more scrutinized,” says Elliott, whose practice specializes in regulatory and transactional health care law. “I think there was a feeling that it was better to police themselves rather than have the government do it, which had a more onerous feel to it.”
Those voluntary codes became mandatory last year as states such as Connecticut and Massachusetts stepped up to police pharmaceutical giveaways and establish in-state medical commerce codes of their own. According to the Hartford Business Journal, The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology canceled its 2015 convention of almost 8,000 doctors and other participants scheduled for Boston because of stricter regulations on activity between drug companies and health care providers. The American Society of Gene Therapy removed Boston as a possible site for its 2015 annual meeting because the new regulations would “cripple the content and quality” of the meeting, the journal reported.
The regulations forbid exhibitors to give anything away to physicians that doesn’t have educational value or aids in the treatment of a patient. That means no coffee mugs, pens, note pads, stethoscopes, tongue depressors, thermometers, tote bags or any other knickknack that a specialty advertising company can put a logo on. In addition, companies are no longer allowed to offer doctors free dinners, lunches or invitations to entertainment such as private shows by top entertainers.
“Before the new rules even came into effect, people questioned whether doctors would stand in line at a booth at a convention to get a free pen,” says Steve Mapes, vice president of creative services for Impact Unlimited, a New Jersey-based company that is a leading provider of brand communications for events, meetings and exhibits worldwide. “And you would think, ‘No way.’ But in fact, I’ve seen it. It’s like a crowd behavior that overtakes these professionals and they want that pen. It’s established behavior and a definite quid pro quo mindset.”
Research conducted by Mapes’ company tends to support that mentality. In Impact Unlimited’s survey of major healthcare marketers and exhibitors for leading pharmaceutical companies, 94 percent felt there was a change in physician behavior and interest in attending conventions and going to exhibit booths. Of those 94 percent, 54 percent blamed the regulations for some change in physician response that negatively impacted booth attendance. Twenty-four percent reported less traffic to the booths, which they attributed to lack of premium giveaways, and 12 percent said that physicians were less interested in talking to their sales reps due to lack of giveaways. Another 18 percent noted that doctors were disappointed that they had no souvenirs. On the other hand, 40 percent thought the economy was to blame for anemic meeting attendance. Another six percent saw no downturn in attendance. Overall, 94 percent saw less traffic in their booths with a little more than half attributing that to the new regulations.
“The data is muddied a bit because all of this is happening in a recession,” Mapes acknowledges. “We’ll have to wait and see if it continues to slow down in the next two years of so. We really don’t know the outcome yet.”
So are these new regulations delivering a death blow to medical conventions?
Not necessarily, says Susan Cantrell, vice president of resources development for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists in Bethesda, Md. “This may cause more of a need for association planners to get more creative to drag people into the hall,” she says. “We don’t have the free stuff. You’re not going to give away a yoga mat with a logo on it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do things to draw people.”
Ironically, the new regulations may be a blessing in disguise. Mapes says it may be just the thing to get doctors back to the booths. “I’ve heard many doctors say they avoided the convention halls just because it was difficult to get to the booths and get information because there were so many long lines of doctors getting tchotchkes.”
“It really means the pharmaceutical industry must focus or refocus on the value of the information it is presenting,” says Cantrell. “Ultimately, the goal of the guidelines is to bring the focus back to the information that is being disseminated rather than the free stuff. What is going to matter now is presenting the information.”
Cantrell says she has seen several exhibitors successfully draw traffic to their booths while complying with regulations. “You can still give away professional products that are under $100 [and] have no value … [except] to educate the physician,” she says. “I’ve seen exhibitors give away books that the health care practitioner will read and use. Another promotion I saw was that the exhibitor gave $10 to our association’s foundation for every attendee who came to the booth and signed in. I’ve seen a couple of variations of booth exhibitors doing something creative and working with non-profits to boost traffic.”
Mapes says that experimental and immersive marketing is another avenue to drive traffic and truly provide information to the physician. He cited one booth where the physician was given a first-person schizophrenic experience. Such an experience may help change how a physician interacts with his or her patients – and the physician will also remember the company and its products that provided the moment.
“Physicians really do come to these meetings and conventions wanting to learn about new products, techniques and devices,” Mapes says. “They want to learn about a product’s efficacy or the safety profile of a product. By taking the promotional gifts away, the currency being offered now is knowledge and information.”