Both the pharmaceutical industry, and increasingly, the biotechnology industry provide financial and in-kind support for the organisation of meetings and for practitioners to attend them. Other industries, including the complementary medicines industry, pathology companies and other commercial service providers, and professional and political associations, might also wish to provide support for meetings.
Support provided by industry organisations for meetings can include paying for speakers, venues, satchels, refreshments and exhibitions of pharmaceutical or scientific products. This support is usually provided with the stated aim of contributing to educational or scientific activities. However, there is evidence that the association of pharmaceutical industry support for such events can affect decisions clinicians make in their practices, with the result that these decisions are not always based on objective scientific data and therefore may not contribute optimally to patient care or population health.
Pharmaceutical industry support of meetings therefore carries a risk of influencing the capacities of clinical practitioners to make disinterested decisions on behalf of their patients. In view of this, great care should be exercised before accepting support from industries, even for validly constituted meetings or other educational events. The nature of industry support, and any obligations associated with it, should be declared openly to those who might have an interest in knowing. Where a meeting is organised directly by an industry sponsor, the presentations should as a matter of course be subjected to formal critical scrutiny in relation to the possibility of bias or incomplete information.
The best way for industry to support scientific meetings is through independent organising bodies which use the funds provided by industry to defray the costs of bringing in invited speakers, and for other purposes. To qualify as independent, an organising committee should be free of industry sponsor representation (which can be difficult to define for industries that are not clearly for profit, for example where members of the association work in the military services, government departments or charitable organisations). The committee should also ensure that the relevant professional details of each committee member are placed in the public domain and dualities of interests both pecuniary and non-pecuniary are publicly declared.
The costs of travelling to and attending such meetings should in general be met by those who attend them because of their educational value. If they accept financial support outside these arrangements, individuals should determine that the meetings will have educational value, that they will not lead to loss of professional independence and that public scrutiny of them would not raise concerns.
In addition to clinical and scientific meetings organised by independent organising committees, industry organisations sometimes provide sponsorship to clinicians to participate in a variety of other events such as local meetings of specialist groups, hospital grand rounds, departmental scientific meetings, product launches and continuing professional development programs. While these meetings usually have a clearly defined primary educational aim, industry support may provoke suspicion that attendance will result in clinical decisions being influenced by associations with industry. Practitioners involved in organising or attending such meetings should have a high level of awareness of this risk. They should take deliberate steps to ensure that the source and extent of sponsorship are fully disclosed (acknowledging that disclosure alone may not be effective in countering industry influence) and that the primary educational purposes of the meetings are achieved.
Before any form of industry support is accepted, the following questions should be considered:
- Will acceptance of support be likely to result in any actual or perceived loss of professional independence, either during or after the period of support?
- Is the proffered support genuinely and clearly linked to further education or ongoing professional development which is likely to benefit the community?
- Do the potential supporter’s organisational history and practices, either locally or internationally, raise concerns?
- Have the criteria used to select invited speakers and delegates to an industry-supported meeting been publicly disclosed?
- Have the scientific and promotional components of the meeting been sufficiently separated by the organisers?
- Are there any dualities of interest that need to be declared?
- Would patients and their families be concerned by such sponsorship?
- Will the propriety of the sponsorship stand up to scrutiny by colleagues and the public?
- After consideration of the above, do the potential benefits outweigh the risks?
In general, industry support of meetings should be indirect and mediated through independent organisers, untied to the promotion of any commercial product or other industry concern and appropriately disclosed to relevant organisations and meeting attendees.
- The nature of industry support and any obligations associated with them should be declared openly to those who might have an interest in knowing, including the public.
- If possible, industry support for scientific meetings should be organised through independent bodies.
- Meetings organised directly by industry should be recognised as promotional and critically scrutinised by organisers and attendees in relation to the possibility of bias or incomplete information.