Pfizer seeks to win over local CME providers with revamped grant portal

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Doyle-Scharff: All CME is local
Doyle-Scharff: All CME is local
A major funder of CME is trying to win back accredited education providers who may have been turned off by pharma's newer grant application systems. At the same time, though, non-accredited medical education firms will be discouraged from applying directly.

Compliant but highly impersonal, the newer online systems rolled out by pharma the last few years replaced the friendly, local drug rep, who had been the main point of contact for providers like community hospitals. An online application can take hours to complete, only to return a blunt “yes” or “no” reply, the latter leaving the provider with little to show for the time invested.

These centralized grant systems may have been the right way to go at the time, but they forced large and small providers alike to operate within the same bureaucratic “maze,” said Maureen Doyle-Scharff, MBA, FACME, a director in the medical education group at Pfizer. “[Smaller providers are] running a CME program on a shoestring, and when they're seeking support, it's usually not a lot. Local providers have said to me it's not even worth it,” to submit applications for activities such as grand rounds. “That hurts patients, ultimately, when that level of provider can't, because of systems we've put in place, operate in a way that helps them improve their programs.”

Now Pfizer, one of the largest supporters of industry-funded CME, is offering what it says is a kindler, gentler grant management portal, with “user-friendly” features built in based on user feedback.

In addition to fewer hoops to jump through, according to Pfizer, it's also a very different system, asking questions geared toward quality-improvement-oriented CME, the kind which providers are being encouraged to produce. Only accredited providers are able to register. They can be accredited by the Accreditation Council for CME (ACCME), the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE) or, in the case of a community hospital, their relevant state medical society.

Launched Jan. 4, the new portal (, is part of a broader push by the drugmaker to restore funding to community hospitals and state chapters of specialty societies while better targeting grants to areas of greatest need. Pfizer hired five medical education directors to cover various parts of the country, splitting their time between visiting providers in various regions to discern need and convening with colleagues at Pfizer's Manhattan offices. To further support decision-making, directors are responsible for clinical areas corresponding to the firm's therapeutic interests.

The portal also makes good on a pledge by Mike Saxton, MEd, FACME, Pfizer senior director, team leader, medical education department, to ease the application process, shortening wait times, enhancing communication and becoming more transparent. Pfizer's goal is to disclose CME grants given in the first quarter of 2008, Doyle-Scharff said.

The new system requires that individuals applying for grants be the ones responsible for the education. That means academic medical centers, where clinical departments typically seek commercial support for annual conferences, must apply through their CME departments. While CME staffers will be the primary users of the system, they may designate “subusers” within their organizations.

Nor does Pfizer want to leave medical education companies out of the loop. Many accredited MECCs will fall into the category of level-three providers (corresponding to the level of outcomes they can produce), the level which Pfizer wants to support.

However, non-accredited MECCs may need to change their business model to focus more on teaching hospitals that seek to broaden their competencies through instructional design and medical writing, jointly identify a need and then request funding together. Pfizer will begin to phase out so-called capabilities presentations, during which non-accredited MECCs meet with drug companies to showcase their services, Doyle-Scharff said.

The grantor also will shy away from the RFP, embracing instead the CGA (call for grant applications), issuing several this year in areas like HIV. The CGA is not a directive or way to control grants, she maintained, but a way to articulate funding goals to providers. Some of the CGAs will be for needs assessments in different clinical areas.

Why invest in needs assessment? “I could cross my fingers and hope somebody...comes to me and applies for a grant,” but, “I don't think it's in anybody's best interest for us to continue to support education based on inaccurate or inadequate information,” Doyle-Scharff said.

The company wants to move toward publishing those needs assessments so that professionals in the relevant areas can make better decisions on what education to produce.

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