Membership Has Its Privileges

DIA Remains Committed to Quality, Individuals
Mar 01, 2003

DIA's executive team includes (l to r) Charles Depew, president, Bob Assenzo, executive director, and Irwin Martin, immediate past president and associate executive director.
All is quiet at the Drug Information Association's new headquarters, a short ride from the hubbub of Philadelphia. But inside, the association buzzes with change as it harnesses the expertise and energy of its members to improve healthcare around the world. Now approaching its 40th year, DIA is expanding both its educational programs and its global reach.

An association member since 1967, Executive Director Bob Assenzo confesses that his history is wrapped up with DIA's. He shares both accounts in an easygoing style, combining industry expertise gained from his former jobs in the regulatory departments of Novo Nordisk and Upjohn with the idealism of a director of a nonprofit organization.

From a Small Seed DIA barely resembles the association that was incorporated in 1964. "We started out with 30 members, and now we have almost 1,000 times as many," says Assenzo. "The whole focus was on medical communications and figuring out how to best deliver up-to-date information to patients about the use and potential problems of pharmaceuticals. We formed because there was an interest in finding out how executives in other companies did their jobs. What their barriers and concerns were and whether they were the same as ours. And by and large, we found out that they were the same." (See "Membership Growth," page 36.)

Today, DIA's 27,000 members come from every level of the pharma industry as well as from government and regulatory agencies, academic institutions, contract service organizations, and healthcare consultancies in 75 countries. DIA programs and services cover the gamut of drug development and marketing. But the association's purpose-the exchange of information to foster healthcare advances-remains the same.

DIA's lifeblood is its volunteers-plus a small paid staff-and it survives because of their efforts to accomplish its mission of advancing members' careers, professions, and organizations. Volunteers' dedication to that goal, their ability to step outside of insular corporate thinking, and their grass-roots approach to tackling industry issues are what set DIA apart from commercial training companies.

Members often find that, as their careers mature, they end up volunteering to speak at or chair the same types of events they attended during the early part of their career. That's because, despite busy schedules, they find that membership has its privileges.

"When people share scientifically with friends and colleagues, they get a passion for DIA," says Assenzo. "Some people, like myself, volunteer because it's pay-back time. DIA helped my career, and now I can help other people. Others volunteer because they have something to say and they need a place to say it. DIA gives them that opportunity. Other people want visibility or recognition, and we can give them that, too, by offering them a stage to speak on. And the companies benefit. When I was at Upjohn, they supported my involvement because they knew, when I spoke on stage, people would say, 'Wow! Upjohn has a lot of good scientists. That's a company I'd like to work for.'"

Companies may benefit, but DIA remains solidly committed to the individual. DIA's mantra of "meeting member needs" is especially notable, given an industry environment made faceless by megamergers in which long-standing employees have little job security. It gears its programs and services toward people within the healthcare industry, not just pharma. There are no corporate memberships or sponsorships, and individual dues are only $100, or 100 euros, annually. Those two factors create a neutral forum where all healthcare players-especially regulators-feel comfortable discussing healthcare issues and receiving training.

Assenzo says DIA's neutrality encourages the multidisciplinary approach necessary to make the organization work. "When we discuss controversial issues, we involve all parties. As such, DIA gives the industry the type of elasticity it won't find in pharma company board rooms-a forum where sides can challenge each other and they don't snap."

Growing Pains Despite its age, DIA has yet to hit its stride. Various executives discuss the organization's current growing pains.

Irwin Martin, immediate past president and associate executive director, a newly created position, says, "DIA started as a "mom and pop" shop. There are still a lot of residuals of how we used to do things and a 'this is how we've always done it' attitude." (See "From Past to Present," page 44.)

That may change as DIA's structure becomes more complex. Specifically, it expects a proliferation of special interest area communities (SIACs), DIA's global grass-roots system responsible for identifying and prioritizing programming. (See "Special Interests," page 38.)

But for a group based on volunteerism, DIA is becoming too systemized, says Lou Morris, a former DIA president and past acting director and branch chief of FDA's Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications, who now heads his own consultancy. "Volunteers today must be a member of a special interest group; there's an organization for those groups and a mission statement for each one. Overall, it is a much more complex method of creating workshops, and some of the oldtimers say it's getting to be too much like work and not as much fun."

DIA executives say members don't have to join a SIAC but that those groups are the major conduit for building an affiliation with the association.

Martin says new committees are needed because "there's much work to do." That's especially true in areas outside of clinical development, which involves more than 45 percent of DIA's membership.

"In the past, we were strictly focused on the pharma industry and drugs, but that has changed because healthcare has changed," says Eleanor Perfetto, president-elect of DIA and managing consultant for the Weinberg Group, a scientific and regulatory consulting firm. "Now DIA is trying to cover the gamut and it is inevitable that groups such as device manufacturers, because of drug-device combinations, come under the DIA umbrella."

Annual Meeting DIA's annual meeting is known as the event for those in research and development. It's an all-inclusive week-long buffet of poster sessions, networking dinners and functions, tutorials, and more than 350 sessions on topics ranging from advertising to validation. The 39th Annual Meeting, scheduled for June 15-19 in San Antonio, Texas, will feature 1,000 speakers and is expected to draw 9,000 people. Murray M. Lumpkin, MD, MSc, principal associate commissioner for FDA, will chair the event.

"When people ask if you're going to DIA, they're referring to the annual meeting," says Martin. "Even in the 1980s, our meeting was very important, though we had only 900 attendees. But it was still the place to be to get up to date on virtually anything related to pharmaceutical R&D."

Carol Layer, administrative director and DIA's longest-term employee, says the meeting has become so popular that the organization must limit the number of exhibitors. Although that cuts into proceeds, she says, "keeping a reasonable balance between exhibits and attendees makes for a happier crowd."

The DIA office in Basel, Switzerland, holds an annual EuroMeeting with content similar to the US meeting, but regional experts present the sessions. Scheduled for March 5-7 in Rome, Italy, the meeting will have already occurred by the time this story goes to press.

Co-chairs for that event were Andrzej Czarnecki, worldwide pharmacovigilance and epidemiology expert for Eli Lilly, UK, and Jacques Mascaro of Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical R&D, UK. Around 2,000 participants-double the number at last year's EuroMeeting in Barcelona, Spain-were scheduled to attend.

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