In the face of increasing global competition, spending capital on speakers, seminars, and conference participation may not be the biggest concern big pharma companies have. But next year a new policy could affect public perceptions of how corporations spend on speaking engagements and how physicians who attend or lecture at events are compensated.

ExL Pharma, a New York-based division of ExL events, will host the “Effective Advisory Boards and Speaker Program Management Conference” on Monday and Tuesday, June 6 and 7, at 8 a.m. at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick. Cost: $1,995 for the conference only; $2,295 for the conference plus two preliminary workshops on recruiting and training speakers and running advisory board meetings. Call 866-207-6528 or visit www.exlpharma.com/conference-calendar

Bill Cooney, president and CEO of MedPoint Digital Inc. in Evanston, Illinois (www.MedPt.com), will be one of the speakers. MedPoint offers the pharmaceutical industry ways of reaching physicians using digital channels, including live virtual meetings, recorded web-based media, and media operating off mobile devices.

Cooney founded MedPoint in 1990 after a decade in sales with companies including Discovery International and industry giant Abbott Laboratories, which took him to Illinois. He ventured into medical communications because he says pharmaceutical companies are centers of excellence that breed specific treatments, and information on such ingenuity must be shared and disbursed.

“Primary physicians must know about 20 or more different disease states to treat routinely,” Cooney says. “For diabetes alone they must know 10 different classes of drugs.” The pharma company is going to know more about one little niche area than anybody else, he says. “They bring great science and education to help physicians make the best decisions for treatment.”

Cooney says the persistent problems in the pharmaceutical industry are ever-tightening regulations, access to physicians, and price pressure. However, advances in technology (over the last five years in particular) make outreach easier and more effective for his company’s mission.

“One thing pharma has in its favor is that digital media is becoming a more important, effective way to reach members of the medical community that many need to partner with,” he says.

Cooney will lecture on “Evolving Speaker Programs for the new Regulatory and Ethical Environment.” His presentation will focus on the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, passed under the umbrella of Obamacare last year and scheduled to take effect in 2012. Starting in January, each time a pharmaceutical, biotechnology, or other medical product manufacturer pays or provides a “transfer of value” to a physician in the U.S., that company must report the transaction to the federal government.

The latter refers to non-monetary items of value that physicians (speakers) may receive. The biggest expenses to fall in this category are travel, hotel, and meals. Among these the most notable item is meals, Cooney says, as anybody will be able to look up and see that “Doctor X is getting a free meal worth $80 at Ruth’s Chris.”

Information subsequently will be posted on a website available for public view. Disclosures would include honorary payments for consulting activities, as physicians frequently take roles as consultants and featured speakers for the pharma industry.

Cooney expects reactions to vary but he feels those in the industry have not set forth a plan to adapt and evolve. “Everybody’s talking about how they can comply with the Sunshine Act,” he says. “I’m pretty much the lone voice in the woods, saying ‘wait a minute, should you think about what the information is going to look like? Should you revise your spending practices now that this will all be very public information?’”

Aside from cost disclosures, the availability and effectiveness of today’s speakers have come into question. Cooney says physicians, as “thought leaders and experts,” do not have time to travel long distances to give lectures because they must work harder, perform more procedures, and do more paperwork to maintain their incomes.

Cooney feels a more recent setback evolved as academic medical centers have “gotten unfriendly to pharma and the pharma industry.” Many no longer allow faculty to be speakers for commercial industries like pharmaceutical and biotech. “There’s a shrinking pool of qualified thought leaders to serve as speakers,” he says. “My guess is that half as many physicians will act as speakers as there were five to six years ago.”

Developing events and programs now is naturally more challenging. Cooney says digital media is a great solution because a physician in Seattle can present to practicing physicians anywhere without having to travel. Implementing teleconferences can do more than save money — it can increase participation while saving everybody’s time.

The second youngest of four boys, Cooney teamed with his older brother, Thomas, to take a technological approach to medical communications in the early days of the Internet. Thomas, the second oldest son, is MedPoint’s chief technology officer. He joined Bill in 1993 and shortly after the company launched Telepoint, a virtual meeting, web-conferencing technology.

“When Bill Clinton was elected Hillary Clinton really took the lead in healthcare reform,” Cooney says. Once Clinton came in, the industry sensed there might be a lot of changes. This was when America Online first got going. We said ‘let’s marry these two things.’ We pioneered the field of virtual meetings in this industry. We were first to do it by a couple of years.”

Bill Cooney grew up in Larchmont, New York. His father was a lawyer who climbed the corporate ladder at Pfizer’s Manhattan headquarters at a time when the company was just an ingenue on the big stage of biopharmaceuticals.

“Today Pfizer is the world’s largest pharma company, but when he was with Pfizer it wasn’t even in the top 10,” Cooney says. “He was there during a period of tremendous growth and success, and that’s where this industry caught my attention.” Eventually the family patriarch ended up serving on Pfizer’s executive committee.

Passion for the pharmaceutical industry isn’t the only career ballast inherited from his father. During World War II Cooney’s dad attended the University of Virginia for 18 months of naval reserve training to become an officer before going to war.

“When I looked at schools such as Georgetown, my dad hadn’t been back to UVA in 25 or 30 years, since he graduated,” Cooney says. “But he said ‘go take a look, you may like it.’”

Cooney was impressed with a beautiful campus and UVA’s academic qualities. His father’s time and purposes at the university were a far cry from his son’s B.A. in English, conferred in 1980.

After Cooney graduated the economic climate was fair enough for him to feel compelled to go to grad school instead of pursuing a job. His family had relocated to Ohio so he decided to attend Ohio State University, where he earned an MBA in Marketing in 1982.

The MBA helped him master the integration of marketing, advertising, and distributing information. In sales he was on the frontline of interactions with biopharmaceutical’s customer base. Today Cooney’s company serves simultaneous educational and promotional agendas. After 30 years, Bill Cooney drew comparisons and complementary interests.

“Marketing and communications are sisters,” he says. “Journalism isn’t too off either. I love marketing, I love advertising, communications and journalism, and I’m on the most scientific and technical end of that spectrum. But the scientific end of our industry is fascinating — it’s human health and it’s been a lifetime of learning for me to see how rapidly science is advancing,” he says.

Likewise, the way such information is presented through qualified speakers must advance. At the upcoming conference, speaking up for his own interests and the industry’s will benefit pharma and the general public, Cooney says. Our health — and science’s innovations — are always worth talking about.

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