Drug industry's CME support swings to a 2% gain

Dr. Graham McMahon, president and CEO of The Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education
Dr. Graham McMahon, president and CEO of The Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education

Funding from drug- and device makers for continuing medical education activities swung to a slight gain last year after six consecutive years of decreases in spending on CME, according to figures released Tuesday.

The boost in CME investment may have been slight—a 2.4% rise to $675.9 million in 2014, according to the ACCME's annual report—but was significant in that it was the first since 2007.

The resiliency in industry support suggests the long string of industry cuts in the amount allocated for certified-education grants may have finally leveled off. Pharma has been slicing budgets for certified medical education since 2008, following the Senate Finance Committee's inquiry into the industry's grant-making practices starting in 2005.

News of the bounce-back came amid a fresh attack on the legitimacy of commercial support. The union Unite Here, which represents hotel workers, recently started a campaign to end industry funding of CME over concerns that the potential influence over doctors leads to higher drug costs for its members. The union's advocacy is noteworthy since many CME events are held at hotels, so further restrictions in pharma support could lead to a reduction of hotel jobs.

Yet, according to the ACCME data, commercial support accounted for just a quarter of all CME income. “Accredited CME is a healthy and growing enterprise,” noted Dr. Graham McMahon, the new president and CEO of the accreditor, in a video introducing the release of the annual report data.

CME providers reported about $2.6 billion in income for 2014 and the income stemmed from a wide variety of sources. The majority (61%) was derived from non-commercial sources: registration fees, government grants, private donations and allocations from a provider's parent organization. Advertising and exhibits accounted for 13% of income.

Most of the money from industry was channeled into so-called enduring material—education that is repurposed for the Web and can be completed by the clinician at any time.

The comeback was not entirely surprising. A report last year in Modern Healthcare had predicted that the drug and device industry could begin shifting their promotional budgets toward CME and away from direct promotional programs, due to a detail in the federal Sunshine Act, a provision in the Affordable Care Act, that allows them to evade disclosure as long as the sponsor is blind to the recipient.

But the CMS last year reversed course, saying it intended to eliminate the CME carve-out. The 21st Century Cures legislation, which is set to be debated on the House floor shortly, would put the CME exemption on firmer footing.