How Many Drug Companies Does It Take to Make a Conference?

June 11, 2009

I have not attended the ADA conference for many years, having instead headed to the yearly ENDO conference. This year was a long-awaited return and aside from some good talks, I was mostly amazed by the level of advertising.

Having just returned from the annual American Diabetes Association meeting, I am as always brimming with new ideas for patient care, medications on the horizon, studies yet to be published, etc. I do enjoy attending conferences, even when considering the number of times (more than 5, less than 10) I am bored during some of the presentations.

I have not attended the ADA conference for many years, having instead headed to the yearly ENDO conference. This year was a long-awaited return, and aside from some good talks, I was mostly amazed by the level of advertising which was present previously but for some reason struck me this year. We all have drug companies advertising at our conferences, I am sure. For some reason this year it seemed, well, excessive. The usual carnival arena of booths were set up in the display rooms, with aisle after aisle of representatives ready to discuss their products and services. There is always a freebie of some kind for both the unknowing and prowling practitioner who wanders by the booth. I recall attending these conferences during my fellowship—at that time it truly was about two things: which freebies can I get (and they need to be useful freebies, not the thousandth pen), and waaaayyyy down the priority list was an intent to truly learn something new about a product. I admit it, so there.

I am used to the reps along the walkways and in the display rooms. I recall the bags filled with fliers and pamphlets being left outside the hotel doors. I do not however recall a drug company branding on my hotel room key. Neither do I remember large (I mean, LARGE) advertising signs outside every shuttle working the convention center and hanging outside some hotels themselves. The amount of branding this year seemed almost obscene.

Now don’t get me wrong, I actually understand the need for some drug company money at these events. Yes, I admit it again, so there. I assume that the ADA gets some percentage of our registration towards running its own programs, most of which are free to the pubic and extremely valuable. However above this level, there needs to be some money injected for various reasons including the free shuttle transportation, flights and hotel for some speakers, those free-to-attendees educational dinners/receptions, etc.

Several studies presented at the meeting were funded by private drug companies and not by the NIH or other government funding. So naturally those companies would like a presence at the meeting. Many drug companies offer travel grants for attendees including fellows and post-docs who are notoriously underpaid. At a time in history when much government and institution funding is low or being squeezed vice-like to provide for all despite falling amounts, the drug companies can pony-up and help out. But at what cost?

Curiosity is expensive, as shown by the cost to run drug studies and pretty much any scientific trials worth their salt. Unless we all want to revert to observational studies (which still have costs involved), we do need some extra help to cover costs of well designed randomized controlled clinical trials and basic science studies. Until the government has a cash-flow increase (when WILL that be?) we will always need outside funding, including private sources and drug companies. I agree that we need to be careful of how much we sit in their pockets, because this year I saw for the first time how branding can seep into everything, in quite a disturbing way.

We try to remain objective, I am 100% sure of that. Even those speaking for the drug companies are certainly under their own misguided impression that they can remain unbiased. We need drug companies’ help, and they need to advertise. However, I do not think we need their names on anything and everything. Redundancy breeds annoyance, at least in this conference attendee.