Tracking Meetings in Troubled Times

Scrutiny of pharmaceutical promotion and gifts to practitioners has intensified, with more states enacting reporting requirements. In May, the federal government passed the Physician Payment Sunshine Act. What kind of impact is all this having on meetings and physician attendance?
Aug 31, 2010
By Pharmaceutical Executive

Meetings and events have been an integral part of drug companies' overall promotional strategy for years, according to SDI, a healthcare analytic organization that has been tracking them since the early 1990s.

And irrespective of the jumble of challenges facing the industry—increased regulatory scrutiny of industry promotion, healthcare reform, mega-mergers, smaller field sales forces, and a stalled economy—such events remain a key marketing practice for the industry.

Of the almost $21 billion spent on practitioner details, events, direct-to-consumer advertising, professional journal advertising, and online promotion during the 12 months ended May 2010, nearly $3 billion, representing 14 percent of all promotional expenditures, was for in-person meetings and events.

Most events are truly promotional and do not offer continuing medical education (CME) credits (91 percent in the year ended May 2010). Even with some companies, such as Pfizer, pulling back and not sponsoring CME events, the percentage of events that offer CME credits has held constant over the last five years (at 9 percent to 10 percent).

The meetings tracked here are solely promotional activity and exclude any events that offer CME credits. Also note: In the case of mergers and acquisitions, current-year information is compared with combined legacy company activity. For example, information contained in the article about Pfizer includes all Wyeth brands.

Overall Trend

During the year ended May 2010, the pharmaceutical industry sponsored nearly a half-million events, 6 percent fewer than the previous 12-month period.

What's interesting, however, is irrespective of market and industry pressures, the number of physicians at events (2.4 million) only declined 1 percent from the previous year. The average number of physicians per event was 4.8, up from 4.6 the prior year.

The vast majority of events (86 percent) are what we consider small group or small rep meetings. This means they include a limited number of physicians (generally fewer than 10), a facilitator or sales representative to lead the meeting, and they take place in person.

Teleconferences and videoconferences were the second-most popular type of event, accounting for 6 percent.

The physicians attending events were most often primary care doctors, accounting for 48 percent of attendees. Pediatricians, psychiatrists, and cardiologists were also popular meeting participants.

Significant growth in the number of events for cardiologists and the number of cardiologist attendees was in large part due to product launches, including Eli Lilly's Effient.

Top Promoters: Merck and GSK


Figure 1
Merck and GlaxoSmithKline were the leading sponsors of meetings and events in the 12 months ended May 2010, with each holding about 41,000 (see Figure 1).

Merck's events most often promoted Singulair, which was the subject of 20 percent of the company's meetings. Januvia and Gardasil were the second- and third-most promoted products by Merck.

The number of GSK meetings in the 12 months ended May 2010 rose 10 percent from the prior year, with events for each of the company's top products increasing significantly. GSK's meetings for Advair Diskus, Lovaza, and Avodart rose 56 percent, 29 percent, and 102 percent, respectively, from the year before.

Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Forest rounded out the top five meeting sponsors. Although Forest ranked fifth in total events, its hypertension brand Bystolic led the industry with 12,015 events in the 12 months ended May 2010.

Top Therapies: Hypertension and Diabetes

Hypertension drugs, including Bystolic, and diabetes therapies led all categories in event promotion. Events supporting hypertension products decreased almost 32 percent in the year ended May 2010, with significant declines in the volume of Novartis' Tekturna and Exforge meetings.

Events for diabetes brands climbed 21 percent from the prior year, boosted by increased promotion of Byetta by Amylin and Eli Lilly (up 37 percent) and the recently launched Onglyza, and marketed by Bristol-Myers Squibb and AstraZeneca.